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Don't Let Tricky Food Label Claims Fool You

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Updated February 06, 2014

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

Food manufacturers like to entice you to buy their products so they use bright colors on the packages along with inviting photos of the products, and they may make some nutritional or health claim on the label. If a product is reduced in fat or made with natural ingredients, for example, it's got to be a healthful food right?

Maybe, or maybe not. While the claims made on food labels are regulated, they can be a little deceiving, so you need to do a little detective work before your buy any food product with a nutrition or health claim on the label.

Think About This When You Read the Claims

Trans Fat Free: Trans fats are bad for your health, so you want to avoid them, but the words 'trans fat free' can be stated on any product that has less than 0.5 gram (gm) of trans fat per serving. If you're eating multiple servings of the food, you might be getting some unwanted trans fats.

To be sure your product is truly trans fat free, check out the ingredients list to look for partially hydrogenated oils. If they're on the ingredient list, there probably is some trans fat in your product.

Keep in mind that a 'trans fat free' food product isn't necessarily good for you, and it doesn't mean it's completely fat-free. It may still contain loads of saturated fats and the calories that come along with them. Look at the Nutrient Facts label on the back or the side of the product to see how much fat and calories are in each serving.

Reduced or Lowered Fat, Sugar or Sodium: When the label states the food is reduced in fat, sugar or sodium, it means the product has at least 25 percent less of that ingredient than that company's regular version of that same product.

But the reduction may not always be that significant. For example, one brand of soy sauce may contain 920 mg sodium per one-half ounce serving (which is more than half the sodium you can have per day on a reduced sodium diet). The reduced-sodium version contains 575 mg sodium -- that's still a lot.

If the label says the product is 'low-fat' or 'low-sodium' instead of reduced fat or sodium, the claim is a bit more specific. Low-fat foods must have less than 3 gm total fat per serving and low-sodium foods must contain less than 140 gm sodium per serving.

Light or Lite: For a food to be considered 'light' it has to have 1/3 fewer calories, fat or sodium of the regular version of that same product. Look at the Nutrient Facts labels to find out exactly how many calories, fat or sodium you're really saving.

Compare one brand of chocolate ice cream with the light version. There's less than half the fat in the light version, but it only has 30 fewer calories per 1/2 cup serving. A big bowl of the light ice cream will still rack up the extra calories quickly.

Natural: Foods that use this claim can't have any synthetic ingredients or additives in the food product. However, that doesn't mean the food product is naturally healthy because it may still be high in fats, sodium, sugars and calories. And don't let words like 'made with natural sugar' fool you into thinking the product is better for you because it's made with regular refined sugar instead of high fructose corn syrup - they're both bad if consumed in large amounts.

Made With Organic: This claim makes it appear the food has more of the specific organic ingredient than it really does. For example, if something is labeled as 'made with organic ingredients,' only 70 percent of the ingredients need to be organic; the remaining 30 percent don't have to be organic at all. Fully organic foods will state they're '100-percent Organic.'

Some food labels might carry the claim 'made with whole grains,' but that doesn't mean they're 100-percent whole grain - they may only contain a small amount of whole grain and a substantial amount of refined flours. Look at the ingredients list - if you don't see '100-percent whole grain' (or 100-percent whole wheat), find a different product.

Health Claims: Some foods can make specific claims about their product's ability to reduce your risk for a certain disease, but these claims need to be cleared with the FDA first. While the packaging might boast the presence of heart healthy olive oil or omega-3 fatty acids, it might also be hiding sugar, sodium and excess calories.

Sources:

American Heart Association. "Reading Food Labels." Accessed February 15, 2009. http://www.americanheart.org/presenter.jhtml?identifier=334

United States Food and Drug Administration. "Food Label Helps Consumers Make Healthier Choices." Accessed February 15, 2009. http://www.fda.gov/ForConsumers/ConsumerUpdates/ucm094536.htm

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