Consumers still must read product labels critically to make healthful choices


In a perfect world, the splashy "buy me, buy me" type on the front of food packages might say something like this:

"All natural, but the rosy-red color really comes from beet juice."

"Contains no cholesterol, but the large amount of saturated fat in this product could boost your cholesterol level."

" 'Light' refers to the creamy, whipped texture of this product, not to the fat content or the calorie count."

That day may not be far away. In the past few weeks, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has cracked down on food manufacturers who use misleading words on their products' labels.

The agency has gone after Citrus Hill, whose "Fresh Choice" orange juice is processed from concentrate; Ragu, whose "Fresh Italian" pasta sauce is heat-processed; and several cooking oil manufacturers for boasting that their vegetable oils contain no cholesterol. (All vegetable oils are free of cholesterol but high in fat.)

By enforcing existing regulations and revamping the food-labeling system within the next few years, the FDA is helping to make labels more shopper-friendly.

In the meantime, shoppers still must be alert to the phrases and words used to sell a food product.

"Just because the FDA is cracking down, doesn't mean that the consumer can relax," says Melanie Polk, a registered dietitian and consulting nutritionist in private practice in West Hartford, Conn. "The consumer will still have to translate the [label] information."

The savvy consumer will not take a package at face value, but turn to the ingredient list and the nutritional breakdown for the real story.

"You have to know what you're looking for, and that doesn't mean spending hours in the supermarket reading labels," says Ms. Polk, who also has developed a supermarket tour that focuses on label-reading and making healthy food choices.

Some words used prominently on a package front give the impression of a healthful product or, in some cases, do not mean anything at all.

" 'Natural' is a big seller," Ms. Polk says. "Maybe the flavor is natural, but the product can still contain a number of chemicals that most consumers can't even pronounce."

The word "light" -- or "lite," as it is often spelled -- can have different meanings. "Look to see what the company means," Ms. Polk says. "Light could mean the consistency [of the product], the flavor, color, fat or calories."

Fleur-de-Lait brand of "Ultra Light" cheese spreads is a perfect example. One quickly realizes that "ultra light" refers to the consistency of these whipped cheeses because the nutritional information is anything but lightweight -- the cheese spread is a high-fat item.

Both Bertolli and Philippo Berio market light olive oils. In this case, "light" refers to the color (pale gold) and the flavor (blander than regular olive oil) rather than fat content. "Fat is fat," Ms. Polk says, pointing out that the fat content of light oil is the same as regular olive oil.

Canned fruit designated as "light" generally means that the fruit is processed without added sugar, that it is packed in fruit juice, or both.That can mean fewer calories than the syrup-packed fruits.

Light margarines generally contain fewer calories than regular tub or stick margarine because more air and water are added to the mixture. "Look at the nutrition information," Ms. Polk suggests. "You want margarine with the least amount of fat and the least amount of saturated fat -- then use it sparingly."

Wording also can create the impression of a healthy super-food with Wheaties, "The Breakfast of Champions," a perfect example.

The name of Kellogg's Nutri-Grain bars, a granola-like bar, "gives us a pure, healthy kind of feel," Ms. Polk says. The label reads "Made with real fruit. No preservatives," but not mentioned on the front are the artificial flavors and colors listed in the ingredients.

"Lightly sweet, honey-touched whole wheat flakes and raisins" is the way General Mills describes Crispy Wheats 'n Raisins on the label. But sugar is in third place on the ingredient list, with honey taking a distant place in the lineup.

A few years ago, after much consumer demand and media attention, most of the major cracker and cookie manufacturers switched from highly saturated tropical oils to more polyunsaturated vegetable oils and fats in their products.

But while the saturated fat content has changed, the total fat content probably has not.

Nabisco labels its Better Cheddars Snack Crackers -- as well as many of its other products -- "low-cholesterol, low-saturated fat" on the package front. While those statements aren't untrue, the nutritional analysis tells the rest of the story: More than half the calories in a 10-cracker serving comes from fat.

Serving size also is a useful piece of information when trying to understand the nutritional breakdown.

Archway, a cookie manufacturer that can be commended for listing nutritional information on the front of most of its packages, loses some points when labeling its Lemon Snaps.

"Very low sodium! Cholesterol free! No palm oil!" says the box front. But a serving size of one cookie contains 1 gram of fat, one-third of the total number of calories. "You get 1 gram of fat when you eat one cookie," Ms. Polk says, "and it's easy to eat 10 cookies."

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