Food labels aren’t easy to understand, which makes it hard to pick the best items


Ingredient labels such as “sugar-free” and “no-added sugar” can stump consumers. (BIGSTOCK)
September 1

You read labels at the supermarket so that you can make the healthiest choices for you and your family. But sometimes you get stumped: How do you decide between a container of pasta sauce with “reduced sodium” and another that’s labeled “low sodium”?

Here’s a guide to help you tell the difference between some similar-sounding label claims and ingredients that can trip you up.

“Hydrogenated oils” or “partially hydrogenated oils”

Here’s a guide to help you tell the difference between some similar-sounding label claims and ingredients that can trip you up.

Which is better? Neither (though some experts say PHOs should be banned entirely!)

Why? Both oils are commonly used in processed foods to help prolong shelf life and improve texture. But PHOs (a main ingredient in some stick margarines) are a major source of heart-harming trans fats, which raise dangerous LDL cholesterol and lower HDL cholesterol (the healthful kind). Hydrogenated fats, on the other hand, are similar to saturated fats. They might raise LDL, but they don’t have a negative effect on healthful HDLs.

Although fully hydrogenated oils may seem to have a slight edge, they’re not harmless. They’re still a source of saturated fat, and if a label lists hydrogenated oil, it’s possible that the food contains some trans fat. In 2013 the Food and Drug Administration proposed removing PHOs’ classification as a food that’s “generally recognized as safe”; the agency has yet to make a final determination. In addition to butter substitutes, you may find PHOs in cake icing, commercial baked goods, microwave popcorn and other foods.

“Multigrain” or “whole grain”

Which is better? Whole grain.

Why? “Multigrain” sounds earthy and grainy, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that the grains are whole and contain all of the essential parts and nutrients of the original kernel. “Multigrain” just means that the food contains more than one type of grain. The only way to ensure you’re getting whole grains is to look for ingredients such as whole-wheat flour.

“Reduced fat” or “low fat”

Which is better? Low fat.

Why? You’ll always know what you’re getting when you choose a low-fat food: three or fewer grams of fat per serving. “Reduced fat” isn’t as straightforward. It simply means the food has at least 25 percent less fat than its regular version, which could be high in fat to begin with. And don’t get snookered by “light” or “lite,” either; they, too, can mean various things.

“Sugar-free” or “no added sugar”

Which is better? Neither.

Why? A “sugar-free” label means that the food has less than half a gram of sugar per serving. A “no sugars added” claim means only that sugar wasn’t added in processing. But if a food’s ingredients are high in sugars anyway, it could still pack a lot of calories.

“Excellent source of fiber” or “made with extra fiber”

Which is better? “Excellent source.”

Why? An “excellent source” or “high-fiber” food has a federally defined standard: It must have at least five grams of fiber per serving (20 percent of the daily recommended value, or DV); a “good source” must have at least 2.5 grams per serving (10 percent of the DV). By definition, a food with “extra fiber” should supply at least 10 percent more of the DV per serving than a similar food.

“No nitrates or nitrites added” or “uncured”

Which is better? Neither.

Why?Sodium nitrate and sodium nitrite are compounds added to processed meats such as bacon and ham to “cure” them, boosting shelf life, improving flavor and adding color. But both are additives you don’t want to consume in unlimited quantities because they’re associated with the formation of possible cancer-causing nitrosamines on meat and in the body. The government allows “no nitrates added” and “uncured” labels when meat is cured with celery juice or celery powder, but those ingredients can naturally produce nitrates.

“Low sodium” or “reduced sodium”

Which is better? “Low sodium.”

Why? For a food to earn a “low sodium” label, it must contain no more than 140 milligrams per serving. Even better but harder to find is a “very low sodium” food, which by definition has a scant 35 or fewer milligrams per serving. But because a reduced-sodium food needs to be only 25 percent lower than the regular version, it can still pack a lot of sodium.

Copyright 2014. Consumers Union of United States Inc.

For further guidance, go to www.ConsumerReports.org/Health, where more detailed information, including CR’s ratings of prescription drugs, treatments, hospitals and healthy-living products, is available to subscribers.

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