In case food product labels confuse you, understand that things used to be worse. The trick is to know what matters to you – and how to avoid getting suckered in by misleading information.
The newbie label reader, perhaps someone with an awakened sense of nutrition due to a recent diagnosis of alopecia, might find the complexity of food product labels to be intimidating. If that is you, fear not – this guide zeros in on the most important information.

First, the legal background: Standardized product claims on food labels took a giant step forward in the early 1990s with the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act (NLEA). This act placed limits on what food manufacturers could say on the front of the food product, as well as what had to be divulged on the back (labeling was already present on some food products before the NLEA, but it was confusing and inconsistent). It was a giant leap forward in consumer awareness, a tool to help grocery shoppers know what was in each product and how it could affect their health.

Subsequent studies show that it works – for people who read labels, anyway. Researchers (Jayachandran Variyam and John Cawley, “Nutrition Labels and Obesity” [USDA/Cornell University, 2006]) found that people (non-Hispanic white women, in particular) who already read labels prior to and after the enactment of the NLEA experienced a decrease in body weight. The study even projected a monetary benefit of the labeling law: between $63 billion and $166 billion are saved in health care costs over a 20-year period. So it works for some people – and really all of us, considering the net impact of health care costs on the economy.

A guide to interpreting food packaging, back and front

The intent of food package information is standardization, allowing apples-to-apples comparisons between products. A second function is education, for example, helping consumers see how entire categories of foods contain more fat and calories (e.g., frozen potpies) than other categories (frozen vegetables). Prior to the NLEA, it was possible to call something “light” simply because it was not a dark color.

But consumers are unique, differing not only in taste preferences but in nutritional needs as well. One person may be on a sodium-restricted diet, while someone else is looking to lose weight by reducing calories. Another person might be on a quest to gain muscle with more protein, while yet another is worried about a family propensity to heart disease and thus wishes to restrict intake of trans fats.

Between product claims on the front of the box and “Nutrition Facts” on the side or back, most people should be able to find what they need. Here in three categories are the things to look for:

1. Positives: What do you consider to be generally a good thing for you?
Here is where you examine your priorities. Do you want to restrict calories, sodium or saturated fats? Or are you trying to achieve protein or fiber goals? That information is clear in the Nutrition Facts box found on all products.

Note: There are hundreds of known beneficial micronutrients in some foods – particularly in fruits, vegetables and whole grains – that are not described or quantified on food labels. The very nature of packaged foods is that they are processed, with a large percentage of those micronutrients lost in manufacturing. If that concerns you, steer your shopping cart from the middle of the store (where packaged goods are sold) to the periphery, where fresh produce is sold (frozen fruits and vegetables can be a wise choice, too).

2. Relatives: Combinations that balance against each other.
How much is too much, and how little is too little? That all depends, of course: the person and his or her goals, the other meals in that person’s day, and the other nutrients within a single product. For anyone who exercises, it may be a priority to take in adequate protein while restricting fat intake. That person might establish a ratio of fat to protein, perhaps at 1:3 grams (e.g., if it has 5 grams of fat, it should also have at least 15 grams of protein), as a guide to the products that will or will not be purchased.

Also, check the serving size. Quite often, people on restrictive diets don’t realize that those 15 grams of fat are really 30 grams because they unknowingly eat two or more servings.

3. Land mines: Adverspeak, the misleading terms usually on the front of the package.
The NLEA couldn’t dictate all front-of-box language, so there remain many terms that are not always clear or correctly understood and that are sometimes downright misleading. Beware the following:

  • “Organic” – Organic does not necessarily mean healthy. And it might involve pesticides and herbicides in production. “Certified Organically Grown” is the industry’s way of establishing a standard, but again, that can mean the product contains certified organic fat and sugar. The Nutrition Facts on the back still should be reviewed.
  • “All natural” – See “Organic.”
  • “Multigrain” – The only way to make sure the entire grain is intact throughout the product is with a label of “100% Whole Grain.” There is some value to including parts of other types of grain (flax, rye, etc.), but less so if parts are removed in processing.
  • “Made with 100% whole wheat” – This usually means there is some 100 percent intact whole grain and parts that are just the soft, starchy parts of the grain.
  • “Zero trans fats” – Any time you see this, be sure to look in the ingredients list for the word “hydrogenated,” which always means the presence of trans fats, which raise bad cholesterol and lower good cholesterol – and are to be avoided entirely. A product that has less than 0.5 grams of trans fats is allowed by the NLEA to say “zero.” This assumes a low amount of consumption of the product (e.g., a 4-ounce serving of chips) – if you consume more than one portion at a time, beware.
  • “Zero calories” – Actually, the NLEA rules allow products that contain less than 5 calories to be labeled “zero.” Sweetener substitutes (e.g., Equal, Splenda) contain 3-4 calories per packet (they use a form of sugar for bulk, mixed with noncaloric aspartame or sucralose). No big deal, really, unless you use many dozens of packets per day.
  • “Fruit juice” – Apple and grape juice make great sweeteners in a product. But those are missing all the fiber and micronutrients (antioxidants, etc.) of real fruit yet still add calories.
  • “Sugar Free” or “Fat Free” – Check the calorie counts and ingredient lists instead to see what’s really in the product – both terms are often used as smoke screens.

Many of the categories mandated by NLEA seem anachronistic, for example, the inclusion of vitamins A, C and D. And rarely are those things found in large quantities in processed foods (exception: vitamin C is often added to a product, an indication of how the food industry knows consumers seek out this nutrient, particularly during influenza season). At least those small numbers serve an educational function – that such nutrients are essential but not to be found here, more likely to be found in fruits and vegetables, products on which the NLEA does not require labeling