Patient Education

What’s in the Box?
Understanding Product Labeling

Which matters more: the nutrition facts label, the ingredients list or the health claims listed on the product label? Here’s what you need to know about how to read and evaluate product labeling before you buy.

Product labeling can be misleading, especially with phrases like:

  • “Fat Free!”
  • “Sugar Free!”
  • “Low-Carb!”
  • “All Natural!”
  • “Organic!”
  • “Prevents Heart Disease!”
  • “Prevents Cancer!”

But just because a product claims to be healthy doesn’t mean that it actually IS healthy. How can you know that the products you choose are, indeed, healthy choices? Start by learning how to read the label.

product labeling claims

Nutrition Facts vs. Ingredients: What’s more important?

Contrary to popular opinion, the most important part of any product label is the ingredients list. Ignore all the marketing jargon, and ignore the Nutrition Facts label for now, and start by reading the ingredients list. Why? Because it tells you what you’re actually eating.

By law, all packaged food products must disclose their ingredients and list them in descending order by the weight of each item. For example, in a carton of cottage cheese (Figure 1, from www.rdeliciouskitchen.com), the first ingredient listed is milk because there is more milk in the product than anything else. Vitamin A palmitate is listed last because there is less of it than anything else.

Figure 1

As a general rule, if the ingredients list is more than a few lines long or you can’t pronounce or identify an ingredient, you probably shouldn’t consume it. (See Figure 2 [from www.generalmills.com] for an example of something you absolutely shouldn’t eat). The only exception here would be the technical names of vitamins and minerals, such as vitamin A palmitate, riboflavin and calcium lactate. If you’re unsure of an ingredient, Google it!

While companies are legally obligated to list the ingredients in their products, they don’t have to tell you where those ingredients come from or whether or not they are naturally occurring food sources. That’s why product labeling, including health claims, can be misleading.

Figure 2

Here is a list of some toxic ingredients to avoid during your SHAPE ReClaimed journey and beyond:

  • Added Sugar — Although not all sugar and sugar-based sweeteners are toxic, they all need to be avoided during Phase I and Phase II. For a complete list of names for sugar, see “Sugar’s Identity Crisis.”
  • Artificial Colors — FD&C Red No. 40, Blue No. 1, Yellow No. 5, carmine extract, tartrazine, lake pigments, etc.
  • Artificial Preservatives — Benzoates, sulfates, sulfites, nitrates, nitrites, sorbates, calcium propionate, BHT, BHA, Disodium EDTA, etc. For a more complete list of preservatives, see “The Problem with Preservatives”.
  • Artificial Sweeteners — Aspartame (under brand names like Equal, Nutrasweet or Aminosweet), saccharin (Sweet’n’Low), sucralose (Splenda) and acesulfame potassium (Sunett or Sweet One).
  • Hydrogenated Oil — Often listed as partially- or fully-hydrogenated vegetable oil or shortening, this ingredient is listed on the Nutrition Facts as “Trans Fat.” Learn more about this form of fat in “All About Dietary Fat.”
  • Monosodium Glutamate — Also known as MSG and often listed under pseudonyms like autolyzed yeast extract, hydrolyzed vegetable protein, calcium caseinate, and many more. For a more complete list of names for MSG, click here.

Decoding Nutrition Facts

A product’s nutrition facts are required by law to be printed on all packaged food labels. In May 2016, the Food and Drug Administration made several changes the Nutrition Facts label laws, including a requirement to disclose added sugar. The changes will take full effect in January 2020, but many manufacturers have already adjusted their labels to comply with the new requirements.

Here’s how to understand the Nutrition Facts label on a packaged food.

product labeling store

Servings Per Container and Serving Size

Read this information carefully, as it can be misleading. A pint of ice cream says it contains four ½ cup servings, but people rarely, if ever, stop at ½ cup. The same is true with bottles of soda and packages of candy, which often say they include two servings. When was the last time you only drank half a bottle of soda or ate half a package of M&Ms?

Manufacturers are sometimes deliberately misleading consumers through product labeling by making it seem like a product is healthier (lower in calories or containing less fat, sugar and  sodium) than it actually is. With the new law, serving sizes and servings per container must reflect how much the average person actually eats in a single serving, which means other information on the package, like calories, will also be more accurate.

Calories

A calorie is a unit of energy. All foods contain stored energy. When you consume food, you are essentially consuming energy that your body uses to function. All macronutrients contain calories, but 1 gram of fat contains more energy or calories than 1 gram of protein or carbohydrate. Thus, fat provides more energy. The Nutrition Facts label lists the number of calories in a single serving of that food. Always look at the serving size to get an accurate picture of how calorie-dense the food is.

% Daily Value

Each additional item on the Nutrition Facts label is listed in grams (a unit for weight) and in % Daily Values. The % Daily Value is usually explained at the bottom of the Nutrition Facts label, but that information isn’t accurate for everyone. Your sex, age, body size, level of activity and general health all need to be factored in to determine your individual daily needs.

Cholesterol and Sodium

Cholesterol and sodium can be controversial. Some dietary cholesterol is necessary, such as that found in egg yolks and organic butter. And some sodium is necessary, which is why we recommend using Celtic Sea Salt. These values on product labeling can generally be disregarded when you’re on SHAPE ReClaimed and beyond if you follow the guidelines for avoiding toxins and stay away from highly processed foods.

We take a more thorough look at dietary fat, carbohydrates, and protein elsewhere on this site. But, for the purposes of this article, be sure that “Trans Fat” is always 0g. Trans fat is the main type of fat in hydrogenated oils, which we know to be highly toxic.

Total Carbohydrates

On a Nutrition Facts label, Total Carbohydrates gives the total number of grams of carbohydrates in a single serving of the food. The figure is further broken down into two values: Dietary Fiber and Total Sugars.

In Figure 3 (from bobsredmill.com), Total Carbs are 4g per serving, and Dietary Fiber is 3g. When you subtract Dietary Fiber from Total Carbs, you get a value known as net carbs — in this case, 1g. The lower this number, the better, especially if you’re dealing with blood sugar imbalances or working on releasing excess weight. Flax seed is an excellent source of healthy carbohydrates, fiber, omega-3 fatty acids and other phytonutrients.

Under the new labeling law, manufacturers must disclose Added Sugars. This is a wonderful change. While the ingredients list is still the most important place for detecting added sugar in a food product, consumers will now be able to check the Nutrition Facts for additional confirmation about whether a food has added sugar. Some naturally occurring sugar (like lactose in cottage cheese and yogurt or the sugar in whole fruits and some vegetables) is fine while on SHAPE ReClaimed, but added sugar is a big NO.

One of the main reasons why it’s so important to focus on the ingredients list is that the Nutrition Facts label can be misleading. Look at the ingredients in Figure 4 (from crisco.com). Notice the word “hydrogenated” is listed twice. Hydrogenated oils are highly toxic and a source of trans fat. Now check the Nutrition Facts label. It says there are 0g of trans fat. How is it possible that a product containing hydrogenated oils is free of trans fat? If the amount per serving is less than 0.5g, legally the manufacturer can say 0g on the label.

Figure 3
Figure 4

How to Read Product Labeling:

  1. Find the ingredients list. Observe how many words or lines it contains.
  2. Read through the list and ask yourself:
    • Are there any toxic ingredients? (see the list of toxic ingredients to avoid above)
    • Can I picture each ingredient in my mind?
    • Can I pronounce each word?
  3. Evaluate your answers to these questions.
  4. Look up any unknown ingredients.
  5. Decide if the product is healthy and/or SHAPE-approved. If it is, buy it. If not, walk away. When in doubt, leave it out.

 The more you practice these steps, the easier it will be to understand product labeling. Give yourself some extra time for your first few shopping trips, and eventually, you’ll find that toxic ingredients start to get your attention, much like a warning siren or a flashing light would. Your success on the SHAPE ReClaimed program and beyond depends on you learning how to read product labeling so you can make educated choices.

For more information on food additives, click here.

For more information on the new product labeling requirements, click here

August 6, 2018