Menu Close

How to Read Food Labels: What Nutrition Coaches Want You to Know

How fitness and nutrition experts should interpret misleading food labels

How to Read Food Labels and Know What You are Buying

We have all done it – standing in the aisle while reading the back of a food jar to decipher the ingredients on the label.  Is this fattening?  Does it have too much sodium?  Can I eat this on my sugar-free diet? Take comfort that you are not alone. Nearly 59% of consumers have a hard time understanding nutrition labels, according to a Nielsen survey. We’ve broken down the meaning behind some of today’s most commonly misunderstood label claims.

Multi-Grain or Wheat

Labels can be confusing but also misleading. For example, if you want the most nutritious breads, look for the label that reads “100 percent whole grain or whole wheat.”  Multi-grain doesn’t mean much.

The Skinny on Fat

If you are cutting back on fat specifically, then look for the products labeled “low fat.”  Meaning a serving contains 3 grams or fewer. Reduced fat means it contains 25 percent less than the original.
As a NESTA Certified Fitness Nutrition Coach, you will learn this information in detail.

Misleading Marketing in Food Labels

Marketers cleverly package today’s food products but have little to do with science. The word “all-natural” or “natural” has not clearly been defined by one common dietary standard. The label can be quite broad in meaning. Just because the package is in a brown, earthy toned wrapper doesn’t make it better. People often mistake natural for organic. That said, FDA has not developed a definition for use of the term natural or its derivatives. However, the agency has not objected to the use of the term if the food does not contain added color, artificial flavors, or synthetic substances. “Organic” is a USDA certification that verifies that a farm or handling facility located anywhere in the world complies with the USDA organic regulations and allows one to sell, label, and represent products as organic.

Grass-Fed: How to Understand Marketing and Labeling

Do you eat beef and dairy because it is grass-fed? Many mistakenly believed that grass-fed also means organic. Grass-fed does not mean that the cattle’s feed is organic, and it doesn’t mean they cannot be given hormones or antibiotics. The letter of the law, as defined by the USDA, says that the cattle must be fed only mother’s milk and forage (grass and other greens) during their lifetime. When one compares products produced conventionally, grass-fed meat and dairy have been shown to contain more “good” fats, less “bad” fats and higher levels of vitamins and antioxidants. However, to really that the product also meets the organic standards, look for that label term and the USDA organic seal as well.

Free Range

Do you prefer to buy your eggs from a hen that was allowed to roam freely versus being cooped up (pun intended) in a cruelty cage? It certainly sounds more pleasant.  However, don’t assume your free-range chicken spent its entire time outdoors. While the US Department of Agriculture does define the words free range, there are no true requirements for the amount of, duration of, and quality of outdoor access.

What’s a GMO?

GMOs are the source of genetically modified foods and are also widely used in scientific research and to produce goods other than food. There are two sides to the GMO debate and it is up to each person to do his or her own research on the matter. According to the Huffington Post, every year, farmers plant $15 billion worth of GMO seeds around the world. The main GMO crops are alfalfa, canola, corn, cotton, Hawaiian papaya, soybeans, sugar beets, yellow crookneck squash and zucchini. Nearly half of all U.S. cropland grows GMO products. So why all the fuss? The drawbacks potentially, to GMOs relate to the long-term effects of altering crop genetics. There is some evidence that these changes are simply speeding up the evolutionary process without fully understanding the impact on our crops or to those humans ingesting the GMOs for the long haul. The American Academy of Environmental Medicine (AAEM) recently released its position paper on Genetically Modified foods stating that “… GM foods pose a serious health risk”.
Ultimately, each individual needs to determine the reason behind why they are seeking to include particular food types in their diet.  Some may have health and nutritional benefits while other food label claims mean little to your health at all. Of course, if you have a serious medical condition that requires you to seek out particular food ingredients, it is always best to consult a doctor or nutrition specialist.