Why reading only the front of the box is a big mistake, and other ways to get label-smart.
Food products make a lot of big claims these days, from promising better heart health to boasting all-natural ingredients. But the front of a package isn’t always where the truth about your food is. One way to get savvier about the reality of food claims is paying attention to the side or back of the package—the place with the nutrition and ingredient information—instead of just trusting the eye-catching hype on the front.
Hungry to learn more? Follow these tips to make sense of food labels.
Whole grain. Being “made with whole wheat” does not mean that whole wheat is the main ingredient in a product. To see the bigger picture, look at the ingredient list. If “unbleached enriched wheat flour” and “sugar” are the first two ingredients, you’re not getting a product rich in whole grains.
Natural. A recent Consumer Reports survey said more than 75 percent of people believe the term “natural” means that a food has no artificial ingredients, pesticides, or genetically modified organisms (GMOs). In fact, the FDA defines “natural” only as food with no artificial or synthetic ingredients. And remember, even food with “natural” labeling can still be loaded with saturated fat, sugar, and empty calories.
Organic. USDA-certified organic foods are grown and processed according to federal guidelines that cover most areas of farm operation. Produce can be labeled “organic” if it’s certified to have grown on soil that hadn’t had any prohibited substances applied for three years prior to harvest. Organic meat requires animals to be raised in living conditions that allow natural behaviors (like grazing), to be fed 100 percent organic feed and forage, and not to be administered antibiotics or hormones.
Fair trade. To receive Fair Trade Certified designation, producers must abide by a number of principles, including no forced labor or poor working conditions for laborers. Farms must use sustainable methods, and genetically modified crops are not allowed. Fair Trade USA certifies coffee, tea, cocoa, fresh produce, and many other products. The designation also appears on ready-to-drink beverages, body care products, and spirits that use Fair Trade ingredients.
Non-GMO. Genetically modified foods are made with organisms whose genetic material has been modified in a way that does not occur naturally, such as through the introduction of a gene from a different organism. According to the Non-GMO project, “GMO free” and similar claims are not legally or scientifically defensible. It’s important to note that labeling a product “non-GMO” does not mean it’s organic.
Heart-healthy. Foods are allowed to carry this designation only when they contain three grams or less of fat and at least 0.6 gram of soluble fiber per serving. To be considered “heart healthy,” they must also be low in cholesterol, saturated fat, and sodium, and contain no trans fats. This label can lead you to foods that might be better choices for health, including that of your heart, but eating these foods won’t necessarily prevent heart disease.