Food labels often advertise healthy promises on the outside that the food inside may not keep. Learn which labels require a closer look with this easy-to-understand guide.
All grains start their lives as whole grains complete with a fully intact seed that includes three separate components. However, refining grains tends to remove the two outermost parts of the seed, stripping much of the grain's protein and at least 17 key nutrients. Whole grains have protein, fiber and many important vitamins and minerals that refined grains often lack.
If a food label says a product is "whole grain," that means that it must have the same amount of all three seed components as a freshly harvested kernel. Words like "bran," "wheat germ" and "fiber" do not mean a product is whole grain. Check the ingredients – if the first ingredient contains the word "whole," then it's likely (though not guaranteed) that the product is mostly whole grain. If only the second ingredient contains the word "whole," then the product may contain anywhere from 1% to 49% whole grain. With multigrain breads, it can be even harder to know how much of it is truly whole grain.
If you want to be completely confident that you're eating whole grains, look for a Whole Grain Stamp. If a product has a 100% Stamp, then all the grain ingredients are whole grains and it contains at least a full serving (16 grams) of whole grains per serving. A Basic Stamp means the product has at least 8 grams (a half serving) of whole grains, though it may also have refined grains.
"Zero Trans Fats"
Trans fats are a dangerous type of fat used often in baked goods, frozen foods, frostings, coffee creamers and microwavable popcorns, among others. They are a major contributor to heart disease and have already been banned or eliminated from many foods and restaurants. But beware: Current labeling guidelines allow manufacturers to say that any food that contains less than 0.5 grams per serving contains zero trans fats.
Even small amounts of these fats can add up over time to severely damage your blood vessels and heart. To make sure you're avoiding trans fats entirely, watch out for foods that list partially hydrogenated oil, hydrogenated vegetable oil and shortening on their ingredient list – these foods contain trans fats.
If a food says it is "lightly salted," that generally means that it has 50% less sodium than the amount in a similar reference food, so that does not mean that it is low in sodium. To keep track of how much salt you're actually eating, check out the amount of sodium on the label and try to stay under 2,300 mg a day. People with certain health conditions may need to stick to "low sodium" foods, which contain no more than 140 mg of sodium per serving.
Cholesterol is naturally found in foods like meat, dairy, eggs and fish. Research now suggests that eating foods that naturally contain cholesterol may not contribute to high blood cholesterol levels as much as was once thought. Many foods that are labeled "cholesterol free" never would have contained cholesterol to begin with – but labeling them this way can trick you into thinking you're buying something healthy. It's more important to look at fat and calories and focus on healthy foods high in fiber.
"Now With Less Fat"
Foods that advertise as "reduced fat" contain at least 25% less fat than a similar reference food does. However, less fat can mean less flavor and less satisfaction, which manufacturers will often try to make up for by adding sugar and sodium. You may be tempted to eat more of the "reduced fat" food, leaving you with a bigger waistline than if you stuck with the original.
Terms like "sell by," "use by" and "best before" are usually not good indicators of how safe the food is to eat. Rather than referring to when the food is safe to eat, these terms are simply suggestions from the manufacturer for when the food is at its peak quality. The "sell by" date tells grocery stores how long to offer the product for sale, and food is usually fresh for at least several days after that date. "Best by" usually speaks to when the food has its best flavor and quality. "Use by" is the last date recommended for use of the product at its peak quality. Confusion over these dates prompts 9 out of 10 Americans to throw away food before they really need to – a waste of taste and money.
Production or packed date is the date the food was placed in its final package. You will find this one on canned or packaged goods, but it can be tricky. In fact, it may be in code. It can be month-day-year-MMDDYY or the manufacturer could code it completely different. For instance if the item was packed in January the code may appear as 001-0031.
“Best If Used By” and “Use By”
Terms like "best if used by" or "use by" date is the manufacturer’s estimate of the last date recommended for peak quality. "Use by" is also the manufacturer’s estimate of the last date recommended for the item to still be at its best.