You double-check your locks before leaving the house, inspect your teeth after eating, scrutinize your on-line banking info daily.
And yet, with allergies on the rise—research from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that food allergies among children have increased roughly 50% since 1997—taking the time and energy to examine what you’re putting in your body isn’t only savvy but necessary.
Navigating those numbers and words on the back of a bottle or package is, however, another story entirely—and without a basic handle on definitions, you might be left reaching for a bottle of Aspirin instead. Here’s how to read food and supplement labels with confidence—so that you can consume with ease:
As mentioned, allergies are on the rise, with Science Daily reporting that one in every 13 children in the U.S. has a food allergy. And whether you have a whole brood or you’re childless, learning to read food labels is the “mainstay for treatment,” says Joyce Rabbat, MD, medical director of the Pediatric Allergy Division at Loyola University Health System. “…ingesting even a small amount of the allergen could result in an allergic reaction. This is why becoming familiar with what to recognize on food labels is of utmost importance.” Besides fat, calories, sodium and sugar levels—which most of us know are crucial to identify—keep an eye on the following:
A law passed in 2004 now requires that major allergens be listed on food labels—milk, eggs, soybean, peanuts, tree nuts, wheat, fish and shellfish. (Some labels will also disclose if its product was made in a place containing these allergens, but it’s vital to note that manufacturers are not required to list possible cross-contact or cross-contamination “of the food with allergens,” Rabbat says.) What’s more, only the major allergens catalogued above need to be listed on the label—meaning, if you have an allergy to say, blueberries, the onus is on you to read all of the product’s ingredients.
2. Serving size
That protein bar that’s calling your name might look like a smart choice upon a cursory glance at its fat and calories. But, as we all know, looks can be deceiving—and that little bar could contain three times as much of both due to its actual serving.
For a simple trick that doesn’t require a measuring cup, spokeswoman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics Jen Bruning suggests “noting the number of servings in a package, then eyeballing how much a serving would be, like half of a two-portion bag. Be extra careful with packages that look like a single serving,” Reader’s Digest reports.
“Even with small items like candy bars, it’s important to see how many servings are in your hand. Just because it can fit in your hand or you can eat it in one sitting doesn’t mean it fits one serving size by nutrition.”
3. Fat breakdown
You might quickly scan the total amount of fat (or “Calories from Fat”) present in a serving, but how often do you pause to consider the type of fat you might be eating? Scroll past the total to the actual fat breakdown, where trans and saturated fat are listed (due to their link to higher rates of heart disease) and, depending on the manufacturer, monounsaturated and/or polyunsaturated fats—“good” fats that naturally support cardiovascular health and ideal cholesterol levels. Then? Opt for products that include more of the latter.
4. …and empty promises
From “natural” to “sugar free” and “pure,” the average consumer can be easily enticed into thinking she’s eating healthy when she’s actually filling her plate—and her body—with ingredients that are anything but. That “fruit drink” you’re about to swallow, for example, might contain as little as 10% of real fruit juice, making up for that extra volume with high fructose corn syrup and water.
A good rule of thumb? Search for “certified organic” rather than merely “natural” (especially when it comes to chicken, where you should look for the green seal that says USDA Organic), “100% whole wheat” rather than “made with whole grain” and a reduced 25% of calories rather than the nebulous “lite.” Further, ignore promises that might be vague or misleading, and instead look at the order in which the ingredients appear. Why? “The ingredients in the largest amounts are listed first,” says reporter George Miata. “So if you spot sugar higher up than other ingredients in a particular food, chances are it isn’t nutritious.”
In 1994, Congress passed an act that gave consumers greater control over their health: a bill called the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act (DSHEA), which calls for companies to include essential information on vitamins, minerals, amino acids, substances and botanicals so that “consumers may make informed and appropriate health care choices for themselves and their families.”
That act was enhanced in 2002, when the Food and Drug Administration—who has “primary oversight responsibilities” for dietary supplements and their labels—announced the Consumer Health Information for Better Nutrition Initiative, which aims to bolster “the credibility of food and dietary supplement labels through the inclusion of more accurate, science-based information.”
Here’s how to parse those descriptions so that you have the power to make a more thoughtful decision:
1. Intended use
According to the Department of Health and Human Services, this section on the label (while not always worded the same) gives consumers a sense of the supplement’s intended range of uses, wherein “all intended claims would be based on scientific evidence.” A magnesium supplement, for example, might include a sentence stating that the mineral may be beneficial for nerve and muscular tissue metabolism.
This section is particularly important for consumers who are seeking a desired effect—stronger nails, for example, or improved vision. A word of caution, however: Don’t rely on the intended use alone for your nutritional requirements. Food is always, by and large, the best and choicest way to shore up your daily musts (and fill those gaps in your nutritional needs).
2. Safety information
Whether you’re pregnant or have a medical condition, this element of a dietary supplement label informs consumers of potential interactions, contradictions, side-effects and adverse reactions.
3. Directions for use
Proper doses and guidance, if available (such as if it’s best to take the supplement with food) is included in this area—and should always be heeded.
4. Product information
According to the DHHS, product information identifies “the manufacturer, production source and batch, and information about the new quantity of contents found in the supplement.
5. % of Daily Values
Created by the FDA, the percentage of daily values reflects two sets of references: Daily Reference Values (or DRVs)—which are, according to Dr. Weil, “for nutrients for which no set of standards existed previously, such as fat and cholesterol”—and Reference Daily Intakes (RDIs), which replaced the U.S. Recommended Daily Allowances (a term used for the labeling of vitamins, minerals and proteins). In other words, as Weil puts it, “If the ‘% Daily Value’ listed is ‘75%’ that means one serving supplies 75 percent of the entire DV for that nutrient.” But beware: Weil’s scientific advisory board, as well as others, believe that the daily value is below optimal.
Shorthand is central for manufacturers, who must squeeze a significant amount of information onto a small bottle—including when the supplement will expire (aka EXP). Toss a bottle that’s past its prime: the daily value will likely have degraded.
7. …and, of course, ingredients
What, exactly, are you putting into your body? This oh-so-critical component of a nutritional supplement label discloses an “accurate” reflection of each dietary ingredient included in the supplement, including “other ingredients”—additions, according to Weil, such as “tablet integrity, proper digestion or preservation of shelf life.” Consume wisely, and you may feel and see the potential benefits of the supplement—especially when combined with a healthy diet that pays mind to nutritional labels.