Jan. 21, 2014 at 8:54 AM ET
Fifty-four percent of shoppers in the U.S. read food labels when purchasing a product for the first time. But whether they fully understand many of the terms used is another story entirely.
To help, here's a guide to help you understand how labels may try to entice you and how to decipher between confusing packaging terms.
5 ways labels try to entice you
1. Sugar-free. It means the food contains less than .5 grams of sugar per serving — but the serving size could be teeny, said Gayl Canfield, director of nutrition at the Pritikin Longevity Center+ Spa in Miami.
2. Gluten-free. If you or someone in your family is gluten-intolerant or has celiac disease, you should definitely check for this term. Otherwise, don’t assume such products are any healthier than their gluten-containing counterparts. In fact, they may be worse. “Often, these products have extra sugar or refined starches to compensate for not having gluten,” said Judy Caplan, a Vienna, Virginia–based spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
3. Natural. “This term has a positive perception but no formal definition when applied to products that don’t contain meat or eggs,” said Canfield. After all, sugar is natural. Other meaningless buzzwords to be ware of: “simple” and “wholesome.” Unless qualified or followed with specific nutritional data, they’re all marketing-speak.
4. A green label. This color basks in the positive glow of its association with nature. So it’s no surprise that a recent Cornell University study found people assume foods are healthier when the label is green as opposed to red or white. “Remember, we’re not eating the package,” said nutritionist Bonnie Taub-Dix. “We’re eating what’s inside.” Don’t fall for images of wheat stalks swaying in the wind, either.
5. Low-fat. Sure, a product may have 3 grams of fat or less per serving, but it could also be high in sugar, sodium and calories. “Very often when one ingredient is missing, manufacturers add something else to make up for it,” said Taub-Dix.
5 phrase face-offs that may be confusing you
1. Organic vs. Made with Organic Ingredients. The former means at least 95 percent of a product’s ingredients qualify as organic; the latter means at least 70 percent of the ingredients do.
2. Reduced Sugar vs. Low Sugar. The “reduced sugar” tag means a product has 25 percent less sugar than the regular version. By contrast, the “low sugar” label, which is often seen on jams and cookies, has — shockingly — no standard definition.
3. Whole Grain vs. Multigrain. The only way to know whether a product is 100 percent whole grain is if it’s labeled as such. If a product bears a black-and-gold “Whole Grain” stamp — based on requirements from the Whole Grains Council — that’s an indication the item is high in the good stuff, Caplan said. The “multi” label simply means that the product contains more than one grain.However, all of them could be refined (not whole).
4. Cage-Free vs.Free Range. These terms are not synonymous. “Cage-free” is something you usually see on egg cartons, and it means the hens were kept in a barn, not in cages. “But they still may have been in close quarters,” Canfield says. A better bet, “free range” means the chickens had the opportunity to go outdoors whenever they wanted. “But that doesn’t mean they were out in the sun high-fiving each other,” Taub-Dix said. Their food and water were likely kept in the barn, so no one but the farmer knows how much time they actually spent outside.
5. Fat-Free vs.Zero Fat. No competition here. They mean the same thing — that the product contains less than .5 grams per serving. And if the serving sizes are small, your fat consumption will add up. "The fat-free claim fools everyone,” Canfield explained. “It also doesn’t tell you what kind of fat it is.” The same standard applies to trans fats, which the Food and Drug Administration is working to significantly reduce in processed foods like frozen pizza and ready-to-use frosting. Until then, a product that claims to have 0 grams trans fat could actually have.5 grams per serving.