Words like “all natural,” “multigrain” and “0 grams trans fat” automatically catch our eyes when we’re scanning the grocery store shelves. But just because a label is decked out with all the right lingo doesn’t necessarily mean that what lies beneath the packaging is good for you. How do you know for sure what’s healthy and what’s not? Get the full picture—flip the bag, box or can around, scan the ingredient list and nutrition facts, and use these tips to figure out whether a food lives up to its first impression or is simply putting up a front.
1. Trans Fat
When trans fat clogs arteries and boosts levels of bad cholesterol, it’s hard to justify eating even the smallest amount of the stuff. But when you pick products that tout “0 grams trans fat” on their packages, there could still be some trans fat in the food. Why? The FDA’s food labeling laws allow foods that have less than 0.5 grams of trans fat per serving to read 0 grams trans fat on the label. Even if a food has 0.4 grams of trans fat per serving, after a few servings, bad fat can really pile up.
Outsmart the Label: Look for the words “partially hydrogenated” in the ingredient list—it’s code for trans fat.
Eating more whole grains is a smart move, but munching on “multigrain” foods might not get you closer to your whole-grain goal. “Multigrain” simply means that the product was made from several types of grain, which may include whole grains such as oats and whole wheat—but it may also include refined grains like white flour.
Outsmart the Label: Look for at least 2 to 3 grams of fiber per serving on the nutrition panel. This is a clue that there are whole grains in the multigrain mix. Also check the ingredient list for whole wheat, oats, millet, brown rice or quinoa.
3. Added Sugar
Spend a few extra seconds sorting out sugar. Simply scanning the nutrition panel for grams of sugar isn’t enough, as not all sugars will sabotage your healthy-eating efforts. Foods like milk and real-fruit-based foods have naturally occurring sugars. For example, one cup of milk contains 13 grams of sugar, but that sugar is actually lactose, or milk sugar—not the same sugar you might spoon into your morning coffee.
Outsmart the Label: If a nutrition panel indicates that there is sugar in the food, check the ingredients. If the sugar is naturally occurring, you won’t see sweeteners in the list. Words like sugar (obviously), brown sugar, honey, molasses, sucanat, fruit juice concentrate, malt syrup, and maltodextrin syrup mean that the product contains added sugar.
4. All Natural
Don't be fooled--“all natural” doesn’t mean organic. In fact, it usually means next to nothing, besides maybe dropping a few extra dollars on a food that won't offer huge health advantages over competing brands.
Outsmart the Label: When buying organic foods, look for the USDA’s certified organic seal, which means that the product includes ingredients that are 95% or more organic. Don’t let the wording “made with organic ingredients” trip you up—the phrase can be used when at least 70% of the ingredients are certified organic. Also keep in mind that junk food can be organic, too. Organic gummy bears are still straight-up sugar. Maximize your food dollars by choosing organic whole foods, like fruits, vegetables, meat, milk, and grains.
5. Chemical-Sounding Ingredients
When you get used to reading ingredient lists, it's easy to become hyper-aware of what you’re eating. That’s great, but don’t get too worked up over scary-sounding ingredients before you know the facts.
Outsmart the Label: Some chemical-sounding ingredients are completely safe and may actually help keep food fresh. These include:
- Alpha Tocopherol: Another name for vitamin E, an antioxidant that’s used in whole-wheat products and vegetable oils to prevent them from breaking down.
- Calcium Propionate: A preservative that’s used in breads and rolls to prevent mold growth. Calcium is a safe and beneficial mineral.
- Carrageenan: A thickening and stabilizing agent used in foods like ice cream, chocolate milk, and cheese, Carrageenan comes from a family of large, indigestible molecules derived from seaweed.
- Citric Acid: Used to control acidity in ice cream, sherbet, and fruit drinks, citric acid is an abundant metabolite that is found naturally in citrus fruits and berries.
For a full run-down of which food additives are okay and which ones you should avoid, check out the Center for Science in the Public Interest’s Chemical Cuisine table.