Q: My husband and I are trying to eat healthier foods to lose weight but after paying close attention to food labels, I get caught up in terms such as “fat-free” or “reduced sodium.” Can you help me understand what common packaging terms really mean?
A: Nutritional terms can become confusing and sometimes overwhelming if you are first starting out on your weight loss journey, but don’t let them get the best of you. As with everything, practice makes perfect. Once you know what you are looking for and know what a term means, it gets much easier. Use eating as a learning opportunity to read labels. While a whole grocery store of labels may be overwhelming, take time at your meal to narrow it down and read just a few.
Most terms apply to nutrients that have a daily value, which is listed on the food label. This is the basis for the original product. Listed is a “beginner’s guide” to common labeling terms.
“Reduced sodium” does not necessarily mean the product is low in sodium and healthy to eat. It means the food has 25 percent less sodium than the original, comparison food. The same concept applies with reduced calories or reduced fat.
“No Salt Added”: The product must contain less than 5 milligrams of sodium per serving.
“Low Fat”: The product must contain three grams of fat or less per serving.
“Fat-Free”: The product must contain less than a half gram of fat per serving with no added fat or oil.
“Trans-fat Free”: The product must have less than half a gram of trans-fat and saturated fat combined.
“Natural” is not a strictly regulated term, but generally refers to foods with a minimal amount of processing and which don’t contain artificial sweeteners, colors, flavors, antibiotics or growth hormone.
“Organic” means at least 95 percent of ingredients were grown following USDA regulations.
“Whole Grain”: This is a tricky one. Some packaging claims that the product is “100 percent wheat,” which does not necessarily mean “whole grain.” The FDA defines a whole grain as being non-refined and having all the naturally occurring parts of the entire kernel — including the bran, germ and endosperm. Examples include barley, buckwheat, oats, rye and wheat. Make sure to check the ingredient list. The first ingredient should be “whole.”
“Wheat”: Some wheat products have the germ removed and as a result you get a processed product. Be careful: Many breads are colored brown to give the illusion of whole wheat when really it’s just molasses. Again, read the ingredient list.
Don’t let fancy packaging or advertising fool you! If it helps, copy this list down and carry it with you the next time you are grocery shopping.
Lisa Van Hout provided information for this article.
April Graff is a registered dietitian for Hy-Vee stores in Mankato. She can be reached with questions at AGraff@hy-vee.com.