One of the most powerful tools you can use to reach your feel-great weight is hiding in plain sight: it’s on the nutrition label of your favorite packaged foods. But deciphering what those labels mean—and determining which foods are going to help you reach your goals—is not always easy.
There’s been a barrage of so-called “health halos,” claims can lead you to overestimate the nutritiousness of a food. From “gluten free” to “no high fructose corn syrup,” these “health halo claims are certainly on a roll,” says Bonnie Friedman, director of nutrition at the Center for Science in the Public Interest in Washington, D.C.
Here are some tips on how to scrutinize labels so you find the products that will help you meet your goals.
Hold yourself to high standards. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has established standard definitions for certain claims, but not others. For instance, foods labeled “low calorie” cannot have more than 40 calories per serving. But claims like “light” and “natural” sound nutritious aren’t required to meet any FDA standard. For quick guide of FDA-approved definitions or some of the most common claims, click here.
Watch your portions. Even if it a health claim is legitimate; it’s not license to go completely overboard. Excess calories can lead to weight gain—even if they come from healthy foods. A study in the November 2006 issue of The Journal of Marketing Research found that people who were given a food labeled “low fat” ate 50 more than those who ate the regular version. Some foods that look like a single serving are actually two servings, or even more. So read “serving size” before you eat. “The important thing in losing weight is really understanding what an appropriate portion size is, and how many calories ultimately are in the food,” says Dr. Marlene Schwartz, director for the Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity at Yale University in New Haven, Conn. “Often people are very surprised to find out that the package is more than one serving, and how many calories a food has.”
Prioritize. What to look for depends a lot on your unique health concerns. If you have high blood pressure, you may want to look for products labeled “salt- or sodium-free” that have less than 5 mg of sodium per serving. Or you might look for the the American Heart Association’s “Heart Check” seal of approval which shows that a product meets certain nutrition requirements approved by the group. (To learn more check out the AHA’s page on heart-smart shopping, here).
Don’t forget the ingredients. Ingredients are listed in descending order from highest percentage to the lowest. So the ingredients listed first are the ones that are included in the largest amounts. If the ingredient is toward the end of the list, the product contains a small amount. So if you’re trying to steer clear of sugar, for instance, make sure added sugars are not among the first few items on the ingredient list. And know that sugar goes by a lot of other names. If a product says that there is “no sugar added” it contains no table sugar, but the product may include other added sugars like corn syrup, fructose, and sucrose. Foods labeled “no high-fructose corn syrup” sound healthier, says Liebman. “But if the foods are high in ordinary sugar, evaporated cane juice, agave syrup, brown rice syrup, or even apple or grape juice concentrate, they’re no healthier,” she says.
Gluten free does not necessarily mean good. The term “gluten-free” is critical for anyone with celiac disease—a digestive condition in which gluten damages the small intestines and causes other health problems. But “millions of people buy them simply because they figure that gluten-free foods are healthier, says Liebman. “Unfortunately, that’s not true.” Indeed, scores of potato chips, cookies, and candy bars sport the gluten-free label. And many gluten-free foods have refined carbs and added fats. So just because a product is labeled gluten free, doesn’t mean that it belongs in your cart.
Eco-friendly does not always mean diet-friendly. The “certified organic” label means that the food is grown without pesticides, antibiotics, or growth hormones. But now that many cookies, candies, and other not-so-diet-friendly items are organic, you should still closely examine the nutrition facts panel and ingredients. Likewise for the foods with labels that are “Non-GMO,” or non-genetically-modified organisms, meant to distinguish a food from those that have been genetically altered to increase resistance to damage from things like pests and disease.(More than 22,000 products now bear a “Non-GMO Project Verified” seal from the non-profit group based in Bellingham, Wash. To learn more, click here. “While labels like ‘organic’ and ‘Non-GMO’ may be good for the farmer, or the environment, if you’re concerned about your weight, it’s not the most important variable,” says Schwartz.
Think outside the packaged box. If you start with raw fruits veggies, whole grain, and proteins, and make your own meals, don’t have to stress out trying to decipher packaged-food doublespeak. “Stick with foods that don’t need a label,” says Schwartz. “That’s probably going to be your best bet.”