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July 2013

Understanding Nutrition Claims on Food Labels

Walk down any grocery store aisle, it is hard to miss the symbols, checkmarks and icons on food labels.  These symbols are intended to convey health and nutrition information.  While the symbols are designed to make it easier to choose healthier foods, they often create more confusion and may be delivering misleading messages. 

Nutrition Symbols on the Label
Nutrition symbols are placed on the front of food packaging.  These independent symbols are designed by food manufacturers, trade associations and health organizations, contributing to dozens of different icon and logos.  Most of these symbols are “better-for-you” denoting the food is a healthier options.  The challenge is the criteria is often based on standards set by the company or organization instead of standardized guidelines.  As a result, the label is only as good as the criteria and it may not tell the whole story.  It can highlight the foods healthful qualities yet ignore the less desirable ones. 

In 2011 there was an industry-sponsored label initiative with front of the label package called “Nutrition Keys”.  These keys prominently display calories, fat, sodium and sugar per serving along with “nutrients to encourage” such as potassium and fiber.  Although commended for their efforts by the FDA, there are reservations with this label.  Concerns of too much clutter on the label which may mask a food high in fat, sugar and salt making it look better than it is. 

What do Different Nutrition Symbols & Claims Mean? 
Whole GrainThe Whole Grain Council has 2 stamps; the Basic Stamp with 8 grams of whole grain (may have refined grains) and the 100% Stamp at least 16 grams of whole grains only.

HeartThe Heart – Check Mark found on foods that participate in the American Heart Association's food certification program.  To aid in selecting heart healthy foods low in; total fat & saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol, sodium.

USDA Organic sealThe definition of “organic” term regulated by the USDA, varies depending on the type of food.  Produce must be grown without synthetic pesticides or fertilizers.  Not from GMO seeds and it cannot be irradiated.

More info go to fnic.nal.usda.gov/food-labeling

The Bottom Line..
Look beyond the nutrition promises and front of the label. You can find the
nutrition information you need in the Nutrition Facts and ingredients labels:

Choose products with: the shortest ingredient list, whole grains preferably as the first or second ingredient, liquid vegetable oils and at least 3 grams of fiber per serving.

Limit products with: sodium– try to keep sodium low (a total of 1500 mg per day), saturated fat as low as possible, no trans fat and minimize high fructose corn syrup.  Check the ingredient label be sure it does not have hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oils, tropical, palm or coconut oil or high fructose corn syrup.


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