Make savvy supermarket selections with this quick primer on food packaging.
Nutrition label
Credit: Kritsada

We've all been there. In the supermarket on a busy day, our cart blocking the aisle, the kids whining that they're hungry while we hold two seemingly identical loaves of bread in our hands, trying to scan the labels as quickly as we can to figure out which one to buy. Half the time we end up grabbing the brand we've heard of and hoping for the best.

'Choice can be confounding, leaving shoppers stymied and sometimes apathetic,' says Tina Ruggiero, a registered dietitian and author of The Truly Healthy Family Cookbook. 'It's no wonder there's confusion, resentment -- when you're expected to pay more for certain foods -- and what I call 'purchase paralysis' when it comes time to buy.'

Front of the Label: Decoding the Claims

A cursory glance at food packaging rarely offers much help. According to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), 67 percent of shoppers weigh claims on the front of packaging when making food purchases, but many of these claims are unregulated and not standardized. Although the FDA has repeatedly issued warnings to the food industry about misleading or inaccurate product statements, getting a manufacturer to change its packaging can be challenging, to say the least.

Unfortunately, it is usually consumers that get the short end of the stick. One study found that when evaluating breakfast cereals, most parents not only misinterpreted the claims on the front of the packaging, but also automatically assumed that the products making such claims were more nutritious. Actually, nutrition marketing is frequently used to boost the perceived healthiness of products that are high in saturated fat, salt, and sugar. Even more alarming? These types of claims are more often used on foods being marketed to kids than on those for adults.

Which claims can parents trust? It's confusing. 'When something says 'all-natural ingredients,' I don't always believe it,' says Dawn Siff, a New York City-based mother of a 3-year-old. 'Because what does that mean?' Siff is right to be skeptical: 'Natural' and 'all-natural' don't currently have legal definitions -- as long as the product doesn't contain added color, artificial flavors, or synthetic substances, the FDA won't object to those terms. But this claim doesn't communicate anything about how the ingredients were grown or raised or whether the food has been processed. So those 'all-natural' chicken breasts you just bought could have been injected with a saline broth.

A few product claims do conform to specific guidelines, namely 'certified USDA organic,' which indicates that a government-approved certifier has inspected the farm where the product or its ingredients were grown. But only products labeled '100 percent organic' are made entirely with organic ingredients; up to 5 percent of non-organic content is permitted for products that bear the 'organic' stamp. Ruggiero adds that the terms 'no antibiotics administered,' 'no hormones administered,' and 'raised without antibiotics' are also supported by organizations with consistent and public standards.

But registered dietitian Elisa Zied, Parents nutrition blogger and author of Younger Next Week, advocates a simpler approach to evaluating products. 'I think it's wise to look past claims on labels to make more healthful, nutrient-rich food choices,' she says. 'Go straight to the nutrition facts panel and look at the nutrients you're most concerned about.'

Back of the Label: The Nutrition Facts Panel

Where to start? Put those elementary-school math skills to work by figuring out the product's actual serving size. Note the number of servings per container, suggests Ruggiero, as some packaged foods that seem to be one serving -- such as a can of soup or a bag of chips -- may not be. (In February 2014, the FDA announced that it is working on updating the current nutrition facts label. Making the serving size information clearer will likely be one of the changes, but there isn't a timeline in place for the update.)

Once you know how much of a food you and your family are likely to eat, you'll have a more accurate sense of what each product offers, nutrition-wise. Here are some general guidelines on what to look for.


'When I look at packaging I look at the sugar content, especially in products made for kids,' Siff says. She's wise to do so -- there's no established upper limit for sugar grams per serving. Zied usually recommends choosing breads and crackers without added sugar but 'for breakfast cereal I'm a little more liberal,' she says. Still, 'The added sugar grams should equal no more than twice the fiber grams.' So, if you're buying a cereal with three grams of fiber per serving, it should have no more than six grams of sugar.


'Dietary fiber is essential to health, and few people get enough,' Ruggiero says. 'I tell my clients to select the product with the highest fiber content they can find.' Zied recommends looking for at least three grams of fiber per serving in bread and cereal.


'Sodium is a biggie,' Ruggiero says. 'It's in everything, so the fewer milligrams of sodium in a product, the better.' Zied suggests paying particular attention to sodium amounts in less obvious sources, like salad dressings and canned foods. Keep in mind that the FDA recommends no more than 2,300 milligrams of sodium per day for adults and 1,200 milligrams a day for kids.


'If there are trans fats in the product, put it back on the shelf!' Ruggiero says. Since the FDA began listing trans fats on the nutrition facts panel in 2006, manufacturers have been slowly removing them from packaged goods, but some products still contain these processed fatty acids.

The Bottom Line

But what if you're really in a rush, and don't have time to compare grams of fiber and added sugar? There's a fast, easy way to evaluate a product: 'Look at the ingredients list to see what's really in your food,' Zied says. The best options? Foods that don't need a label, period. Because comparing apples and oranges may be the easiest choice of all.

Copyright © 2014 Meredith Corporation.