When it comes to making choices in the supermarket, most of us try to look for food that is good for our health. And food companies all tell us their products are just what we’re looking for.
Pork has become “the other white meat,” lean and low in cholesterol like chicken. Bran for breakfast may help us reduce the risk for some forms of cancer. Old-fashioned oatmeal helps protect us against heart disease. And TV commercials are full of trim, healthy people who use yogurt, prunes, grapefruit juice, and diet soft drinks.
Not to mention all the food packages that rpoclaim their contents are “Fresh!” “Natural!” “Lite!” “Low-fat!” “High Fiber!” “Sugarless!” “Cholesterol-free!”
Health claims for food are everywhere now, and they’ve stirred up a hot debate among nutrition experts.
The promotion for some products comes across as a mini-lesson in nutrition education. On one major brand of bran cereal, for example, the entire back of the package is filled with advice on a good total diet. It includes information about hig-fiber foods (like bran cereals, of course), from the National Cancer Institute (NCI), offers an NCI hotline number, and provides an address for an NCI booklet with more health tips. TV and print ads have the same emphasis on health.
Product Info: Useful or
Some nutrition experts believe health messages of this kind, if they are truthful and accurate, can carry useful information to many more consumers.
Other experts believe these health claims are a bad idea. Some manufacturers may make claims that are invalid, they point out; research may be incomplete or unsound, and consumers may be confused and misled. A recent TV ad campaign for a leading brand of cheese slices, for example, was rated false and deceptive in a preliminary ruling by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) last year.
The ads, showing a young girl, claimed that imitation cheese slices used hardly any milk, but that the advertised brand had 5 ounces per slice,” . . . so her little bones get the calcium they need to grow.” The FTC noted that the advertised product may have had 5 ounces of milk per slice, but 30% of the calcium was lost in processing, leaving the advertised cheese slices with no more calcium than the imitation slices.
“Lite” and “Natural”
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has stated that it is preparing to require major changes in the nutrition labeling on packaged foods. But what about the nutrition buzzwords presently found on package labels? Some terms are defined by law, and have very specific meanings. Food labeled “low calorie,” for example, must have no more than 40 calories in a serving and no more than 0.4 calories per gram.
Terms like “fresh,” “natural,” “new,” and “naturally sweetened,” on the other hand, have no legal definition, and can mean anything at all. “Lite” and “low-fat” are not defined by the FDA, which has jurisdiction over 80 percent of food products. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), which is responsible for animal products, has several meanings for “lite,” but defines “low-fat” as 10 percent or less fat in meat, by weight, and 0.5 percent to 2 percent fat in milk.
“No cholesterol” labels are found on foods ranging from bread and peanuts to vegetable oil. Food cholesterol, however, is only found in animal foods, never in foods from plants. In fact, saturated fat does much more than food cholesterol to raise the cholesterol level in the body, and thus to contribute to heart disease.
The Fine Print
Then how does a shopper sort through all these health and nutrition claims?
The American Heart Association has a program starting this year that promises some help. Packaged food products that meet AHA standards for total fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, and sodium contents will carry the AHA heart-and-torch logo in ads and on the package.
But we still have decisions to make about all the products without the AHA seal of approval. The answer, experts tell us, is to read the fine print on the package.
The ingredient list is the first place to look. It’s on every food package, except for ice cream, mayonnaise, and a few other products that have standardized ingredients.
Ingredients are always listed in order of weight, the heaviest first, the lightest last. If you buy muffins that offer oat bran in big letters, and you find oat bran at the end of the list, along with salt and spices, you’re getting just a sprinkle of bran.
Things to Watch
Some other things to watch:
Sugar: Check the list for honey, corn syrup, fructose, and other forms of sugar. Add them together. Sugar may be the main ingredient.
Sugar-free: See what you get instead. Artificial sweeteners, such as aspartame and saccharin, have almost no calories. Sugar alcohols, including sorbitol and mannitol, have about the same calorie count as sugar. They’re used in some chewing gum and diet products; the body handles them differently.
Fats and Oils: Coconut, palm, and palm kernel oils are more highly saturated than butter or beef tallow. They are sometimes listed in either/or style: “coconut oil and/or palm oil and/or soybean oil. . . .” If they are high on the list, pass the product by. If they are low on the list in a low-fat product, it’s more acceptable.
Hydrogenation is a process that makes oils saturated. “Partly hydrogenated” means partly saturated. Shortening is hydrogenated.
How Many Grams of Fat?
In addition to the ingredient list, about 55 percent of package foods have a panel of nutrition information. This is required if vitamins or minerals are added, or if there is a nutritional claim like “low in sodium.” Many manufacturers provide this nutrition material voluntarily. Every product with the AHA logo will also carry this information.
The nutrition section is a list that shows how many calories and how much fat, carbohydrate, protein, and sodium the product has, in each serving, measured in grams.
It also shows the percentage of the USRDA( U.S. Recommended Daily Allowance) per serving for seven essential nutrients: protein, vitamins A and C, thiamin, niacin, plus calcium and iron.
Some manufacturers also include cholesterol, fiber, or additional nutrients.
Watch the serving size. Cereals, for instance, vary from 90 to 130 calories a serving, but a serving can range from 1/4 cup to 1 1/4 cups.
Find out how many calories you get from fat. Too much is a hazard to your health and your waistline. A croissant, for example, has 106 calories, and 6.1 grams of fat. Each gram of fat has 9 calories. Multiply 6.1 by 9 and you will see that more than half the total calories come from fat.
Reading the fine print takes know-how and a little time, but it’s the sure way to choose food that keeps you trim and healthy.