Understanding labels in a supermarket can be a daunting task, and can seem like “word salad” to even the highly educated shopper. So let me provide you with a few clarifications along with some suggestions:
“Reduced Sodium” versus “Low Sodium”: Reduced means that the product contains 25% less sodium than the same food with the usual amount, both of which could be quite high. On the other hand, “low sodium” means that the food can contain no more the 140 milligrams per serving. So, in either case, check the actual amounts they contain. In general, since we all consume too much sodium, I would choose the “low sodium” option or alternatively, look for a “salt free” label.
“Excellent Source of Fiber” versus “Extra Fiber”: To be labeled an “excellent source”, a food must contain at least 20% of the recommended daily value of the nutrient, thus if the daily value is 25 grams of fiber, a given product must contain at least 5 grams. “Extra Fiber” simply means that a product contains at least 10% more than its conventional counterpart. For example, a puffed-rice breakfast cereal that naturally contains on 0.8 grams of fiber per cup could claim to have “extra fiber” if it had a puny 0.9 grams. Moreover, not all fiber has equal health benefits. For instance, whole grains are rich in insoluble fiber (bran), a beneficial nonabsobable nutrient that, for unclear reasons, is also associated with reduced diabetes and cardiovascular risk. In any case, however, it’s best to opt for the “excellent source” choice.
“Sugar free” versus “No Added Sugar”: Sugar free means that the product contains less than 0.5 grams of sugar per serving, assuring that you are receiving very little total sugar. By contrast, a label of “no added sugar”, (including also “high fructose corn syrup,”) means that, although none of these sugars are added, a given product can contain any amount of naturally occurring sugars that could still be quite high in calories. Nevertheless, if the calories are not terribly high and the food is a good source of healthy nutrients, it could still be a good choice.
“Low Fat” versus “Low in Saturated Fat”: Foods labeled “low fat” can contain as much as 3 grams of total fat preserving, while “low in saturated fat” means that a given product contains no more the 1 gram of saturated fat (but may contain any amount of healthier unsaturated fats). Recent information, however, indicates that too much emphasis has been placed on reducing total fat, but that the real focus should be on limiting saturated fat. In general, therefore, low in saturated fat is the better choice.
“Low Calorie” versus “Light”: “Low calorie” means that the product contains no more than 40 calories per serving. “Light” is a relative term meaning that it contains 25% fewer calories than its normal counterpart. Depending upon the item selected, it’s usually best to choose the “low calorie” option.
“NATURAL” AS A FOOD LABEL
In the United States, there are laws/regulations and agencies in place to protect the consumer when purchasing food products, specifically dedicated to the packaging and labeling. The Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) agency is a subsection of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), which is tasked with the responsibility of “ensuring that the nation’s commercial supply of meat, poultry, and egg products is safe, wholesome, and correctly labeled and packaged.” The USDA is partnered with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to develop and issue regulations in regards to appropriate usage of “natural” labels; yet, the FDA does not have specific rules for “natural” labeling.
The term “natural” has, in the past, meant that nothing artificial or synthetic (including all color additives regardless of source) has been included in or added to a food that would not normally be expected to be in that food. But this definition is, at best, nebulous, allowing for questions such as whether the presence of high fructose corn syrup or genetically engineered components can still be considered “natural.”
In response to such a vague definition, the FDA is asking for public comments about use of the term “natural” in food labeling. This action was triggered in part by three citizen petitions asking the agency to define the term for food labeling and one calling for an outright ban of this label. Although the FDA has not engaged in rule-making to establish a formal definition, its longstanding policy simply referred to lack of the above-mentioned additives. Moreover, their policy was not intended to address food production methods such as the use of pesticides, nor did it explicitly address food processing or manufacturing methods such as thermal technologies, pasteurization, or irradiation. The FDA also did not consider whether the term “natural” should describe any nutritional or other presumed health benefit.
For some reason, the FDA has decided to open this subject for public discourse. Until February 10, 2016, comments can be made via docket folder FDA-2014-N-1207 on Regulations.gov. But this procedure appears to be pure folly, allowing the term “natural” to be subjected to a popularity contest, or worse yet, political debate!
It seems quite evident to me that the use of the term “natural” has no meaning whatsoever, and should not be officially justified under any circumstances!
Hopefully, these comments will help to clarify the some of the confusion we all face when navigating the massively stocked aisles in the grocery store.