The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) periodically updates the Nutrition Facts Label found on most food packages in the United States. Introduced more than 25 years ago, the label was developed to help consumers make more informed food choices.
The FDA mandates that most packaged foods carry labels conveying information about nutritional content and a list of ingredients for the product inside. Information made available on the labels includes calorie counts, fats, carbohydrates and proteins, as well as sodium, fiber and a few essential vitamins and minerals. As informative as the labels may be, the fact is that most people tend to focus on a few specific numbers when evaluating a food choice. Instead of looking at the big picture, consumers may zone in on “How many calories?” ”Which has the least fat?” or “How many carbs?” to guide purchases.
The Nutrition Facts Label only tells part of the food information story. In order to fully understand what you’re eating, you need to look at the ingredients list. The healthiest packaged foods have the fewest ingredients—five or less is a good guideline—and they should all be ingredients you know and would use in your own kitchen. Avoid sugar and all the aliases used for the sweetener (see list), as well as those you can’t pronounce. Keep an eye out for artificial additives and preservatives—these are things you don’t want in your body.
Ingredients to avoid
Just say no to:
- Added sugars
- Artificial colorings
- Artificial flavorings
- Artificial sweeteners
- BHA and BHT
- Monosodium glutamate
- Hydrogenated oils
- Hydrolyzed vegetable protein
- Sodium nitrite and nitrate
Let’s be up front
Smart consumers also look at the front of the label. For example, manufacturers of certified organic products also have non-organic offerings in their lines, so if this is important to you take the time to look. Another tip-off about the contents of a food container is the expiration date. If the product will be shelf stable a year from now, most likely it contains preservatives and chemical enhancements!
A few meaningless food labeling terms
Food manufacturers continue to create marketing claims or terms that aren’t regulated, don’t have any real definition and are all about getting you to buy. Here are a few examples of words you might think you understand.
Natural Means nothing. The FDA hasn’t been able to agree on a definition for “natural” on food labels.
Made With… Contains at least a bit of said ingredient. The term isn’t defined by the FDA, so how much is unregulated.
Lightly Sweetened Subjective term. The FDA does not regulate this label. Their “lightly” could be your “grossly.”
High Fiber Must provide five or more grams of fiber per serving. The fiber doesn’t have to be natural and can be an additive.
Light, Lite, Low, Reduced The product has less of (whatever attribute) than the original version. For example, foods can be labeled “light” if they contain half the fat or one-third the calories of the original version.
Let’s not sugarcoat it!
It’s literally everywhere—and not just in sweet treat and confections. Sugar is hidden in condiments and foods that aren’t even sweet—like salad dressings and ketchup. If you see any of the following ingredients on a label, you’re looking at added sugar.
- Brown sugar
- Confectioner’s sugar
- Corn syrup
- Corn syrup solids
- High-fructose corn syrup (HFCS)
- Malt syrup
- Maple syrup
- Raw sugar
- White granulated sugar
Focus on fresh
You may have noticed that fresh fruits and vegetables have “food labels” too. If you understand the language, the stickers on your produce can have more of a purpose than helping scan the price at the checkout stand. The PLU—or price lookup—number printed on the sticker also tells you how the produce was grown. Here are the basics:
Conventional. If there are only four numbers in the PLU code, the produce was grown conventionally or “traditionally,” with the use of pesticides. The four characters of the PLU code designate a kind of vegetable or fruit. Bananas, for example, are labeled with the code 4011.
Organic. If there are five numbers in the PLU code, and the number starts with “9,” the produce was grown organically and therefore is not genetically modified. An organic banana would coded 94011
GMO. If there are five numbers in the PLU code, and the number starts with “8’” this tells you that the item is a genetically modified (GM) fruit or vegetable. If you want to avoid GM produce, buy only items that are USDA certified as “100% organic,” which by law cannot be genetically engineered. A genetically modified banana would be: 84011
You can look up codes individually at PLUCodes.com to learn more.