Shirley Hunt of West Akron lives with chronic health conditions. When she rolls her cart down the grocery-store aisle, she keeps her reading glasses handy.
“I read labels somewhat since I’ve gotten older and for health reasons, checking for sodium and fat content and things like that more than I did before -- instead of just picking things up based on taste.”
A curated grocery store tour
Terra Milo, a certified health coach, takes consumers who care to the supermarket to show them how to read labels.
We meet her in the bulk foods section. We see almonds, pumpkin seeds, and beans. But no labels.
“These items don’t have to be labelled,” says Milo, “because you can see it. You can hold it in your hand. It’s a food. It wasn’t made in a lab.”
This is the kind of food Milo thinks everyone should buy.
“That’s the ideal. But we all get things that have labels, so it’s smart to know what you’re looking for when you do eat that kind of food, too.”
Government rules and regulations
Unless you buy in bulk, grow your own food, or get it from farmers, your food will be labelled according to federal rules.
By order of the Nutrition Labelling and Education Act of 1990, the government requires nutrition labels on bread, cereal, canned and frozen foods.
Trouble is, says the health coach, what you see is not always what you get.
Legibility poses a problem
In the frozen foods section, Milo picks up a package of chicken and pasta in Parmesan sauce.
“Whoa! This label is probably an inch and half long, and you can’t really read it. It’s just so small. So there’s a lot of unpronounceable things in here. This wouldn’t be a great choice.”
Without a magnifying glass how would one know? The Food and Drug Administration allows type sizes on labels as small as 1/16th of an inch.
Maybe you can decipher the label, but can you trust it? That’s up for debate. A few years ago the Government Accountability Office scolded the FDA for failing to prevent misleading labeling.
Health claims are regulated, but Milo says terms can still deceive.
For example: the word “natural.’’ The FDA says it means containing no synthetic or artificial ingredients. But food can contain pesticides or genetically modified ingredients and still be labelled “natural.”
And it can contain large amounts of sugar, and still be labelled “healthy.”
Milo reads similar claims emblazoned in bold letters on a bag of popcorn.
“Guilt-free, cholesterol-free, zero trans-fat, 39 calories per cup. It’s pre-popped popcorn for $4."
Her main objection seems to be the cost, but that’s not all.
“This one’s just kind of preying on people who want to be healthy and are looking for a convenient option.”
Too much sugar
In general, she advises staying away from diet foods.
“If they say fat-free, sugar-free, those kind of things they’re full of chemicals designed to replace the fat and the sugar taste we’re looking for.”
We’re often looking for more than we need. Doctors say we shouldn’t have more than 9 teaspoons of sugar per day.
Ten-thousand years ago, humans consumed 20 teaspoons a year. Today we’re scarfing down 140 pounds a year.
Milo says sugar lurks in prepared foods, often where you wouldn’t expect it.
“I’ve grabbed a couple of things to look at. Yogurt. Right? Yogurt makes us skinny. It’s healthy, right? So if we look at one of these popular brands, this is a Greek yogurt with fruit in it. It has 15 grams of sugar.”
That’s about a third of the healthy daily limit.
“The best bet is to buy a plain yogurt and stir in some honey or some fruit,” says Milo. “Do it yourself rather than buying the one with the fruit already in it because that’s full of sugar.”
Whole grain claims not wholly trustworthy
Labels may mislead in other ways. For example, the FDA allows Raisin Bran to use the claim “whole grain” without specifying what percentage of grains are whole.
“This one says an excellent source of fiber and made with whole grain, good source of potassium. They’re trying to throw a bunch of healthy words on this for us. It has 18 grams of sugar in one cup. Half of what you need for the day.”
And chances are you’ll get up from the breakfast table having blown through the daily limit.
Note the serving size
“It says the serving size is half a cup. Nobody eats half a cup of cereal. So you have to think about how much you actually eat and what they call a serving and what you call a serving.”
That’s often a matter of interpretation.
“Sometimes things look like it’s one serving, like a can of pop or a bottle of pop, but it’s actually two servings. So you have to double all of the sugar and all of the sodium and the calories of all of that.”
Milo says all labels must be scrutinized, even bottled water.
“Unfortunately vitamin water is one of the worst things you can get. It’s so bad. ... It has 32 grams of sugar. Almost all the sugar you need for the day in a vitamin water. You’re better off drinking a glass of water and taking a vitamin.”
Rule of thumb
For those trying to limit their sugar intake Milo suggests a simple approach to reading labels.
“The first three ingredients are the majority of the product. So if sugar is one of the first three ingredients, it will have a lot of sugar in it.”
To make it tasty food processors are likely to throw in salt, too.
“Reading the label, if you’re looking at sodium, it should be a one-to-one ratio with calories. Which means if it has 100 calories, it shouldn’t have more than 100 milligrams of sodium.”
Sodium is a chemical word not that hard to understand, but what if the label reads hexadecatrienoic or tetracosahexaenoic acid?
Terra Milo knows that can be intimidating. But all they are is omega-3 fatty acids, the good kind of fat.
At minimum we need at least 10 percent of calories from fat, but the typical American diet contains 34 to 40 percent and mostly from partially hydrogenated or trans fats.
In 2007, the American Heart Association came out strongly against them. And in 2013, the FDA determined trans fats are “not generally recognized as safe.”
But they are still in many processed foods.
Reading the fat content
Terra Milo says you can learn how to avoid bad fats without having to study organic chemistry or molecular biology.
Just use another simple rule of thumb.
“Good fats have a longer name and the bad fats have a shorter name. The longer fats are actually better for us.”
Milo coaches her clients to consider a few questions:
Are the first three ingredients things I can hold in my hand, or keep in my cupboard?
Can I pronounce everything on the list?
How many ingredients are on the list? "If there’s 30 ingredients on a package of bread, for example, that’s excessive.”
Taking the time
And if you don’t have time to read labels every time you shop, "It might just be one afternoon when you go shopping you take the time to read the labels of the things you normally buy, and then you know what’s in it. And then the next time you can make some better choices.”
Getting in the habit of reading labels improved shopper Shirley Hunt’s health.
“Watching foods, processed foods, the sodium, and I feel a lot better, and I lost weight, and I look great I think.”