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How to Read Food Labels

What do terms like “extra lean,” “reduced fat,” and “low sugar” really mean? Here’s some healthy perspective on what you’re actually putting in your grocery cart.

By Stacey Colino
Illustration of a food pyramid and food label termsMikey Burton

“Multigrain”

It means your chips, bread, cereal, or crackers contain two or more grains. But they’re not necessarily whole grains, which are a better nutritional choice than refined ones. With refined grains (such as white bread, or wheat breads that aren’t specifically labeled “whole wheat”), the nutrient- and fiber-rich parts have been milled out. The current recommendation is to make sure at least half your daily grains are whole.

Smart shopping tip: Whole-grain products list the word whole (as in “whole wheat” or “whole oats”) among the first few ingredients. You might also look for the Whole Grains Council’s symbol. Companies can pay to join this organization and receive its “stamp” on products that deliver at least 8 grams of whole grains per serving.

“99 Percent Fat-Free”

You may assume that means only 1 percent of the calories come from fat, but that’s not the case. Instead, “99 percent fat-free” means that  99 percent of a given weight of the food is fat-free, explains Bonnie Taub-Dix, R.D., a New York City–based nutrition consultant and the author of Read It Before You Eat It ($15, amazon.com). So put on your math hat here: If the food weighs 100 grams, 1 gram comes from fat. Every gram of fat contains 9 calories, so depending on the serving size, a 99 percent fat-free food may contain more fat calories than you would expect.

Smart shopping tip: As a general rule, the fat content in most products that you purchase should be no more than 20 percent of the total calories, says Ginn. The exception to this would be whole foods that are naturally higher in fat, such as nuts, eggs, oils, and meats.

“Reduced Sugar,” “ Low Sugar,” or “ No Sugar Added”

Unfortunately these labels aren’t synonymous with “low calorie.” “Reduced sugar” means the product contains 25 percent less sugar than the original form. “Low sugar” isn’t a regulated term and can mean anything. “No sugar added” simply indicates that no sugar was introduced during the preparation, cooking, or baking process—not that the product is low in sugar. It may contain fructose, which still shows up as “sugar” on the nutrition-facts panel (as with unsweetened applesauce, for instance).

Smart shopping tip: Give yourself a reality check by calculating sugar content in teaspoons. First find the number of grams of sugar in one serving of the product. Four grams of sugar equal about 1 teaspoon. The American Heart Association recommends women consume a daily maximum of about 6 teaspoons (or 24 grams) of added sugar (meaning sugar that’s beyond what food naturally contains). And remember: Even if you don’t see sugar in the ingredients, it might be there. “Sugar is the master of disguise,” says Taub-Dix. It goes by many other names, including molasses, evaporated cane juice, nectar, corn sweetener, honey, syrup, and anything ending with -ose (sucrose, dextrose, fructose, maltose). It’s all still sugar.

Read More About:Nutrition & Diet

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