When choosing foods, what does the word “healthy” on the label mean to you?  Last week the Food & Drug Administration’s (FDA) labeling rules and regulations were in the news because of new thinking about an outdated definition for the food label claim, “healthy.”  In the 1990s when “healthy” was defined, it was mostly based on a food being low in fat – regardless of the type of fat. At the time, the amount of sugar wasn’t even considered!   

Fast forward twenty years and we now know much more about nutrition and what makes a food healthy or not healthy.  At the same time, food label claims are becoming more and more important, because people are seeking and choosing products that will have positive health benefits. Current food package definitions including “healthy” are often misleading to consumers and persuade them to make unhealthy choices. The fact that the FDA will be rethinking their modern definition of healthy is welcome news. In addition, proposals to improve the nutrition facts panel include making the serving size and calorie information more prominent and providing the gram amounts per serving for added sugars. While the FDA is working to redefine healthy, here are some quick and easy tips you can use to make healthy choices.

  • First, check out the ingredient list and find out what is in the food. Ingredients are listed from the largest by weight to the smallest.  Here you can tell if the product has ingredients that you might be trying to avoid (like trans fat and added sugar) or that you want in the product (like fiber or whole grains).  Trans fat is a type of fat that raises LDL cholesterol and lowers HDL cholesterol and will be listed as hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oil.  But watch out—the FDA allows a product to claim that it is “trans fat free” if it has less than .5 grams of trans fat per serving.  The ingredient list can also help you to find added sugars that are in the food. Currently this is the only way to know whether the food has natural or added sugar.
  • Check how many ingredients are in the food. Less is best and usually indicates a truly natural food.  For example, the healthiest type of peanut butter has only one ingredient, peanuts. Next time you are in your grocery store, compare the ingredient list for an all-natural peanut butter to one of the more popular smooth peanut butters.  You may be surprised to find that the ingredients for these very smooth peanut butters contain sugar, hydrogenated oil and salt.  In general, if you see a long list of ingredients that sound more like chemicals than food, the food is most likely highly processed and contains preservatives, stabilizers, emulsifiers, artificial coloring, flavoring, flavor enhancers, etc.—not your healthiest option. 
  • Don’t be misled by advertising claims and photos on packages. All natural, lightly sweetened, made with whole grains, made with real fruit, multi-grain are all terms that imply healthful food, but that have no standard definition by the FDA.  For example, there are no rules for how much whole grain is in a product that is labeled “made with whole grains.”  It could be very little.  Another example:  picture a product that shows delicious fresh strawberries in the background, with the phrase “made with real fruit.” You might assume the product is made with real strawberries, but this may not be the case.  Check the ingredient list to be sure.  “All natural” sounds good, but is it too good to be true?  In many cases it just means no artificial colors or flavors or synthetic substances are in the product.  The product could still contain too much sodium, corn syrup or saturated fat.  
  • Review the nutrition facts panel. This panel provides useful information as to the specific amounts of calories, fat, carbs, protein, sat fat, cholesterol, sodium, sugar and fiber that are in a food or product. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics has a nice article about the basics of the nutrition facts panel which may be helpful to you as well.  Most important to note is that these nutrient facts are based on serving sizes which may or may not be the same as your portion size. Often products may look like one serving in the picture, but contain 2 servings per package.  A good example of this would be a bottle of soda or a frozen entrée of macaroni and cheese.  Also, the serving size may be outdated with respect to today’s portions. Consider ice cream—the typical serving size on most brands is one half cup when in reality portions consumed are usually higher.  Your portion size may be double, so make sure to double the nutrient amounts on the nutrition facts panel when tracking your intake.

Changes to the nutrition facts panel along with a modern definition for “healthy” from the FDA are long overdue.  In the meantime, use the ingredient list, the nutrition facts panel, and your own good sense about healthy foods to guide your food choices. Healthier foods in the house will lead to a healthier you!