Nutrition Labels: Fact or Fiction?


It is important to understand how easy it is to be persuaded by the food industry and how their labeling can affect our food behaviors.

We are faced with having to make choices every day that will affect our health. Shopping and buying food is one of those importance decisions. But it isn’t always easy to make the right choice. With so many products on the market and so much information, it is very difficult to know what the right choice actually is. Which is better, grass-fed or grass-finished? Natural or organic? What does cage-free really mean and why is it healthier? What is the difference between low-fat and reducedfat? What is the difference between lowsodium and reduced-sodium? Is there is a difference? Terms like gluten-free, fat-free, all natural and GMO free on a label imply healthy benefits, but if you look at the fine print on many of these products you will see refined sugars, trans fats and chemical preservatives that are anything but healthy.

It is becoming very clear that processed foods are hazardous to our health, yet the food industry continues to market these foods as healthy, through their labeling practices. It is important to understand how easy it is to be persuaded by the food industry and how their labeling can affect our food behaviors.


Selling processed food is a big business. As with most business ventures, food products rely on advertising and public relations to increase the revenue. Unfortunately, the advertising strategies often mislead consumers by not stating the complete facts and by adding information that would make the food seem to be good health food, when in fact it is not. Food labels on the front packaging are misleading and, unfortunately, a good way to get us to buy foods that aren’t so healthy. Some commonly used claims are:
• Healthy
• Low-calorie
• Low-fat, reduced-fat and fat free
• Low-sodium, sodium-free
• Gluten-free
• Natural
Other commonly used buzz words that entice us… “natural”, “made with whole grains” and “multigrain”, and “trans fat-free” or “no high-fructose corn syrup.”

When we see these on the front of a package, we assume that these food products are indeed what they claim they are. However, many are just words to entice you to buy. They usually are not telling the whole story. In fact, many claims are not truthful at all.


Natural vs. organic: These terms should only mean that there are no artificial flavors, no added food dyes, or other synthetic substances. Most consumers think that when a food is labeled as “natural” it is also organic. Organic is a term that is regulated and has many different variations. The label “100% organic” means that all ingredients and processing aids are organic. The term organic means that 95% or more organic ingredients were used and “made with organic” means that at least 70% of the ingredients are organic. The words “natural” and “organic” are not synonymous.

Whole vs. not so whole grains: A whole grain can be another example of a misleading food label claim. Always look for food products that are made of 100% whole grains, which should be stated clearly on the list of ingredients. Do not settle for products that are labeled as being made with whole grains and multigrain because the amount of whole grains used could be only a pinch. A good choice will be made of entirely whole grain products.

Fat and sugar: You should also keep in mind that food products that claim to be trans fat-free, or have no high-fructose corn syrup are not necessarily healthy choices. They may still be loaded with large amounts of saturated fat, or other unhealthy sugar. You need to look closely at the entire list of ingredients. If it says “dextrin” or “dextrose” or any other word ending in “ose”, it has sugar. If the product has hydrogenated oils, it has trans fats. An educated consumer is a healthy consumer.


Consumers need to check the back labels instead of the front of the package before buying any product. The Nutrition Facts Panel of food products is the only information consumers should check out. It is not as enticing and it still needs to be clearer but it is accurate. It includes facts about the serving size as well as amounts of certain nutrients and calories. It has also been regulated by the Food and Drug Administration. With that being said, you still need to pay close attention and understand what is being said. Remember, the more food you eat, the more money the food industry makes.

For example, pay close attention to the stated serving sizes listed. The amount listed per serving is often totally unrealistic, and nothing like what most people would actually eat or drink. For instance, if a soda or juice is listed as 1/2 cup serving size, that is a mere 4 ounces, and most bottles would have anywhere from 10 to 20 ounces. If you drink the entire bottle, you might be eating four to five times as much as is stated on the package. Soup is another good example. An eight ounce can of soup claims to have two servings. Most people eat at least one cup, or eight ounces of soup.

Another section of the label to fully understand is the “percent daily value section” or DV. The percentages listed are relative to a 2000 to 2500 calorie daily intake. It is not the percentage of the food item. There are some math calculations to go through to get to this number. For instance, if a candy bar has 200 calories per serving and the fat percentage is 10%, it is not 10% of 250. It is 10% of 2000. This would make the fat grams much higher in this item than you might think; 10% of 250 is equal to about 3 grams (there are 9 calories in one gram of fat). The fat gram number is much higher when it is 10% of 2000 calories. That number is actually 22 grams of fat. That is a big difference when you are trying to keep you fat intake down.


Next time you go shopping, be armed with knowledge and information. You and your family will be healthier for it. Remember not to “buy in” to the clams on the front of the package. Read the back of the package!


• Be sure to look at the number of servings in the container. Even small containers may have more than one. If you eat the whole container, then make sure you multiply the nutrition values by the number of servings listed.


• The calories listed are for one serving only. Keep in mind your total daily calorie needs. “Calories from fat” tells how many fat calories there are in one serving. Don’t rely on the percentages to tell you that. Use this to help you choose foods that are high in the nutrients you should have and low in the nutrients you should stay away from.
• Remember that 5% daily value (or DV) or less is low, and 20% or more is high. You will not find a %DV for trans fat sugars or protein. They do list them, however in grams, at the bottom of the label and remember it is for a diet of about 2000 to 2500 calories.


• Limit your fat intake to about 65 grams a day. Limit saturated fats and stay away from trans fats or hydrogenated oils.
• Limit your sugar intake to about 22 grams daily and make sure you are eating enough fiber. Aim for about 20 to 35 grams. Compart the number of grams of sugars to the number given for total  carbohydrate. Some food has natural sugar like fruit and milk products and, unless your choice is
one of these foods, the sugar will be added.


• Limit your sodium intake to about 2,000 to 2,400 milligrams daily. For those with heart disease, the target number is 1,500 mgs. This is very hard to do in our fast, convenient and processed food environment. Remember, a low-sodium item is considered to have about 140 mgs per serving. If the front of the package state low or reduced sodium, check to see how many milligrams it has on the back.


With our processed food supply and the food industry trying to sell us food that is not healthy, it is a challenge to ensure we are feeding our families the healthiest food we can. Choosing more whole foods and less processed foods are still the safest options when it comes to knowing what you are eating.•


Barbara Mintz, MS, RD, Vice President of Healthy Living and Community Engagement for Barnabas Health, New Jersey.


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