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Updated Monday, January 21, 2013 at 07:31 AM

Food Labels: What information can you trust?

By Carrie Dennett
Special to The Seattle Times

On Nutrition

If you need proof that you shouldn’t believe everything you read, consider the food label. In fact, when reading food labels, a dose of healthy cynicism may help you be ... healthy. Some information on the label can help you make nutritious food choices, while other information can lead you to think you’re making a healthy choice — even when you aren’t.

So which information can you trust? The Nutrition Facts Panel. That panel, which includes serving size, calories and amounts of certain nutrients, is regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). It may not be exciting, and it could use a makeover, but it’s legit.

Use the Nutrition Facts Panel to check how big a serving size is, then compare it to how many servings you actually expect to eat.

That goes for foods you eat by the bowlful or handful, like cereal or chips, as well as single-serving foods like muffins or microwaveable soup bowls. Hint: Sometimes that single serving is actually two servings.

When perusing the nutrients on the panel, follow the 20-5 rule. If a nutrient meets 20 percent or more of the Daily Value, that’s high. If it’s 5percent or less, that’s low.

High is great for fiber, vitamins and minerals. Low is best for saturated fat, sugar and sodium. Keep in mind that the grams of sugar listed on the panel include both natural and added sugars.

What if you want to know what’s in your food but need to get in and out of the grocery store fast? Start by reading the labels on foods already in your pantry. You might be pleasantly surprised — or horrified. Either way, it’s a start.

The Facts Up Front box (factsupfront.org) is appearing on more and more foods. This voluntary-labeling system summarizes important information from the Nutrient Facts Panel. At minimum, it will always include serving size and calories per serving.

Many grocery chains have their own front-of-package labeling system. If you’re loyal to one or two chains, visit their websites to learn what criteria they use. If they are stringent enough, that system can help you shop smartly.

Most information elsewhere on the food label or package is not regulated. Treat it as marketing or advertising, not as nutrition information. Here are a few terms that sound healthy, but might not be:

Natural: This is generally allowed if there are no added colors, artificial flavors or synthetic substances. Many people think natural means sort of organic. It doesn’t.

Made with whole grains and multigrain: Instead, look for 100 percent whole grains or whole in front of the first flour mentioned on the ingredient list.

Trans fat free or no high-fructose corn syrup: The food could still be loaded with unhealthy amounts of saturated fat or another caloric sweetener, like sugar.

Next time: What’s in your energy bar?

Carrie Dennett: nutritionbycarrie@gmail.com.

Dennett is a graduate student in the Nutritional Sciences Programat the UW; her blog is nutritionbycarrie.com.


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