Look before you eat

A package label can suggest one thing, but here's what it really means

April 03, 2008|By Meredith Cohn | Meredith Cohn,Sun reporter

It can take more than a commitment to eat right these days.

It can also take some research before you head to the grocery.

Is there a difference between "low fat" and "fat free"? Is "natural" the same as "organic"? Is "whole wheat" the same as "100 percent whole grain"? The short answer: Words matter.

The government specifically defines some labels but not others, the food industry makes up some of its own rules, and consumers are left to make sense of it all.

The consequences can be significant. The American Heart Association says too much "bad" cholesterol found in saturated fats can clog arteries and cause heart disease. "Good" cholesterol found in olive and canola oil has protective properties. Salt in potato chips, crackers and canned soups can raise blood pressure.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says too much fat and calories found in sweets and meat products is contributing to a national obesity epidemic and host of health problems.

The government says small amounts of pesticides and chemicals in fruits, vegetables, tuna and milk are generally safe. But some consumer groups say the jury is still out, particularly regarding what's safe for infants and children, and food grown organically has less residue.

Here are some of the most common labels and what they mean:

Organic

These foods are regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (usda.gov) and require that producers be certified. Processed foods that have 70 percent organic ingredients can claim to be "made with organic ingredients." Chuck Benbrook, chief scientist at the Organic Center, a research group (organic-center.org), said certification is rigorous and requires food to be grown with minimal use of pesticides and chemicals. Inspections are regular.

Low sodium

Food with this label has 140 milligrams or less per serving. The daily sodium intake recommended is no more than 2,400 milligrams. Dietitians recommend checking the serving size because when you eat several servings, the sodium can add up.

Low calorie

They have 120 calories per serving. The amount of calories you need daily varies depending on your size and level of activity, but the government bases its nutritional recommendations on a 2,000 calorie diet, which is appropriate for moderately active women up to 50 and sedentary older men. A calorie calculator can be found at urwhatueat.org/tool4.html.

Light or reduced fat

This means, according to the FDA, that the food must contain 25 percent less fat, calories or salt than the standard version of the food. Dietitians warn that 25 percent of one bad thing is still a lot. Check the label.

Whole grain

Food and Drug Administration (www.fda.gov) guidelines say food with this label must contain the whole kernel. Grains include barley, buckwheat, bulgur, corn, millet, rice, rye, oats, sorghum, wheat and wild rice. If the label doesn't say "100 percent whole wheat" or "100 percent whole grains," there could be processed flour inside. Nonwhole-grain breads or cereals may say they are "made with whole wheat." Check the ingredients for "enriched flour."

Cage free

This means the chickens are not kept in cages, but there's little regulation beyond that. The nonprofit group Humane Farm Animal Care (certifiedhumane.org) certifies companies producing meat, poultry, egg and dairy products as meeting humane standards.

Here are some more common food labels and what they mean:

Natural

Consumer groups say the label means little. The FDA allows it on food that is free of artificial additives, but permitted a soda maker to call drinks with high fructose corn syrup natural. The USDA allows the label on meat and poultry if they are additive-free and minimally processed, but has allowed some companies to inject chickens with salt water. The USDA is reconsidering its rule.

Fat free

Foods have less than a half-gram of fat per serving. Dietitians warn that if you eat several servings, the fat could add up. Calories and salt may also add up.

Low fat

Foods have 3 grams or less per serving. Total recommended daily consumption, based on a 2,000 calorie diet, is 65 grams. But Jayne Hurley, senior nutritionist at the Center for Science in the Public Interest (cspinet.org), said the kind of fat that people eat is what's important. Avoid all trans fats and keep saturated fats low, or under 5 percent per serving.

Sodium free

Foods have less than 5 milligrams per serving. Dieticians say avoid the urge to reach for the salt shaker if the food is bland. Reach for herbs or salt substitutes instead.

Calorie free

Foods have fewer than five calories per serving. They don't have to have zero. And they could have salt or sugar substitutes that some claim cause side effects.

Low calorie

Foods have 120 calories per serving. The amount of calories you need daily varies depending on your size and level of activity, but the government bases its nutritional recommendations on a 2,000 calorie diet, which is appropriate for moderately active women up to 50 and sedentary older men. A calorie calculator can be found at urwhatueat.org/tool4.html.

Free range

The USDA says these chickens have access to the outdoors. Animal-rights groups say that doesn't mean they have unlimited outside time or space.

meredith.cohn@baltsun.com

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