How to Decode Food Labels and Shop Like a Pro

Dietitian Bonnie Taub-Dix offers tips from her new book, 'Read It Before You Eat It.'

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Food labels can be confusing, even for seasoned shoppers. Does "trans fat-free" mean guilt-free? Is "organic" more healthful? Not always, says Bonnie Taub-Dix, nutrition expert and author of the upcoming book Read It Before You Eat It: How to Decode Food Labels and Make the Healthiest Choice Every Time. She's created a guide that breaks down label lingo and shows how to detect misleading enticements. Here are a few terms from her book to be wary of:

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Serving Size. Isn't a small package of cookies or a can of soup a single serving? No, says Taub-Dix—one serving is whatever the numbers on the label say it is. "You have to multiply the fat and calories by the number of servings listed on the label." That can of soup showing 800 milligrams of sodium? Check the label. With the blessing of the Food and Drug Administration, the manufacturer defines the amount as two servings. Mistaking it for a single serving will have you downing 1,600 milligrams of sodium, higher than the American Heart Association's recommended maximum of 1,500 milligrams for an entire day. She also wishes serving sizes reflected the manner in which people eat. Take cereal, for example. "The serving size is one ounce, which is good information," says Taub-Dix. "But what does one ounce mean?" A one-ounce serving of Grape-Nuts is 3 tablespoons; an ounce of Cheerios fills one cup. Unless you're measuring out cereal on a scale, she says, it's hard to visualize what an ounce of cereal looks like.

No Sugar Added. This term doesn't mean sugar-free, as is often thought. The product may not have had sugar added during processing, but it could contain natural sugars that have the same number of calories, says Taub-Dix. To know where your sweetener is coming from, check the list of ingredients for corn syrup, sorghum, maltodextrin, or anything ending in "ose" (like fructose).

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Fat-Free. A product can contain up to 0.5 grams of fat per serving and still be called fat-free. But load up your plate and you could be consuming several grams of fat. Moreover, says Taub-Dix, "a lot of people associate 'free' with no calories, which is not the case," says Taub-Dix. "One muffin could be fat-free, but could contain 600 calories and be loaded with sugar." She worries that "fat-free" food labels give consumers the impression that it's O.K. to indulge.

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0 Grams Trans Fat. As with "fat-free," manufacturers can brand any product with less than half a gram of trans fat per serving with "0 grams trans fat." The giveaway sign is the ingredient list. If hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated fats are on it, trans fats are in the product.

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Light. While this defines foods that contain no more than half the fat or sodium as their "un-light" version, it can also describe texture or color, such as light brown sugar or light olive oil. "Light olive oil is light in flavor, color, and has a lighter feeling in terms of texture, but has the same nutritional value as its counterpart," says Taub-Dix. "You won't save calories by choosing a lighter oil."

Organic. Taub-Dix calls this a "health halo"—a little-understood term that sends good vibes. As defined by the government, organic foods are produced without the use of synthetic pesticides or fertilizers and cannot be genetically modified. Whether the foods are more healthful and worth a higher price is another question. Many nonorganic products, like whole-grain bread and peanut butter, are healthful while organic chips and cookies may be loaded with fat, sodium, and sugar. When buying organic, says Taub-Dix, "don't be fooled by the front of the package."

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