8 Tips for Understanding Food Labels

8 Tips for Understanding Food Labels

Organic, natural, heart healthy, fat free, light: Foods are labeled with many terms that often are confusing to shoppers. Review these definitions as featured in Real Simple.

Heart healthy – Medical professionals encourage people to reduce the risk of heart disease by eating foods high in soluble fiber, such as legumes, oats and some fruits. Foods labeled heart healthy should contain:

  • Three grams or less of fat in each serving, with 0.6 gram or more of soluble fiber
  • Low cholesterol, sodium and saturated fats, as well as no trans fats

Ultimately, the best foods for a healthy heart can be found in the fresh produce aisle.

100% Natural – Products marked with this label should not have artificial colors, flavors or synthetic ingredients.

  • Many organic or natural foods can contain food additives. Researchers still are studying whether additives are harmful to people.
  • Just because a product is labeled as natural doesn’t mean it’s good for you to eat, especially in large quantities. These foods still may contain high amounts of sugar, fat and calories.

Light – This term usually means that the product has one-third fewer calories than the regular product.

  • Light foods should contain 40 or fewer calories per serving.
  • These foods may be good choices when dieting. However, eat in moderation as they may contain higher amounts of sugar.
  • Foods labeled as sugar free contain less than 0.5 gram of sugar per serving, but they may not be low in calories. Artificial sweeteners, such as sorbitol and xylitol, can act like laxatives.

Organic – Products marked 100% organic must contain at least 95 percent organic ingredients and be made without the use of harmful pesticides, fertilizers, antibiotics, synthetic hormones or genetic engineering.

  • Prices for organic foods can be 50 percent higher than nonorganic products.
  • If purchasing nonorganic fruits and vegetables, remember that some can absorb higher levels of pesticides, including lettuce, peppers, strawberries, cherries and apples.

Fat free – Many diets recommend cutting back on eating foods with fat. However, nutritionists recommend allowing 25 to 35 percent of total calories from healthy fats such as those made with olive and canola oils, nuts, avocados and fatty fish.

  • Fat-free products have less than 0.5 gram of fat per serving.
  • Foods marked low fat contain three grams or less of fat per serving; light foods can have up to 50 percent less fat than the original product.
  • Check the nutrition label when eating foods marked fat free, light or low fat as they may contain extra sugar or starch for flavor.

Low sodium – Products with this label should contain 140 milligrams or less of salt per serving.

  • Some foods, such as breakfast cereals, bread and grain-based products, can have hidden sources of sodium, so check labels carefully. Also, check how it measures one serving; for example, is it half a slice?
  • Doctors recommend limiting sodium intake to 2,300 milligrams daily. On average, people consume up to 5,000 milligrams each day.

No hormones or antibiotics – This label applied to red meat, poultry or milk products, means the animals were raised without the use of antibiotics or hormones.

  • During the growing process, hormones can be given to animals to boost weight or milk production, and antibiotics can be used to keep them healthy.
  • Many people are concerned that eating foods from animals treated with hormones or antibiotics can cause medical problems in humans. However, current research is inconclusive.

Gluten free – Some people who eat foods containing gluten, a protein found in wheat, barley and rye, experience intestinal problems, allergic reactions or a digestive disorder known as celiac disease.

  • Some foods marked gluten free can contain wheat.
  • Wheat-free products may not be gluten free. Check the nutrition label for ingredients that contain gluten, such as rye, barley, malt or malt derivatives.