Thursday, April 7, 2011

The Nancy Drew Approach to Light, Free and Lean

If you are anything like me, you like to eat and you are an avid fan of foraging the aisles of the grocery food stores for tasty treats and good eats. Being a health conscious person who covets the waistline of a Victoria’s Secret model, the muscles of Popeye and a life free of health disparity, perhaps you have become accustomed to “ twisting the wrist” before dumping cans, boxes and bags into your cart. If you are one of those people who exercise the art of wrist supination and sleuth investigation, you are probably quite used to seeing labels such as “ calorie free”, “ sugar free”, “extra lean” or “ good source of fiber” all aiding us in the daunting task of choosing healthier food options. We know that the word “lean” makes us think skinny thoughts and that “fiber” is in some way good for us. Further, who doesn’t like hearing the word “free” (free car, free trip, free of pesticides)? The question at hand is what do label claims mean? What is required for a product for it to contain a label? Are claims always as good as they seem? Perhaps. Perhaps not.
“Calorie free” has a natural ring to it. It, in some way, has than uncanny ability to elicit cozy thoughts of freedom from that in food which adds a little jiggle to our love handles. Unfortunately this label, with all its feel-good impressions, doesn’t necessarily mean that a food is 100 percent without calories and though I may wish, it definitely doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have to be paid for. For a food to be labeled “calorie free” it merely has to contain fewer than 5 calories per serving. Basically, a few servings won’t break you or screw up your diet.
“Fat free” and “sugar free” products follow a similar pattern. The requirement for such a label is that it must contain .5 g or less of fat/ sugar per serving. The label can be used to identify products that contain very little fat or sugar, as long as the portion size is reasonable. Unfortunately, buyers need to beware since the guidelines “free” does allow a producer the possibility of advertising a higher fat or sugar food as “fat free” or “ sugar free” if the portion is tiny enough.
Slightly less misleading is the label“Low fat” which is also indicative of the amount of fat present in one serving of a food. A product with this label must have less than 3g of fat per serving. Again, watch what the label considers a serving size when figuring out how much fat you will, in fact, end up ingesting in one sitting.
The label “ Light” or “ lite” can have one of a few meanings. A product that is “light” often indicates that the product has a calorie content that is 1/3 less than a higher calorie equivalent. It can also be indicative of a fat/ sodium content that is ½ lower than its original product.
“Lean” means that a serving contains less than 10 g of fat, less than 4g of sat fat and 95g or less of cholesterol per serving. “ Extra lean“ ,on the other hand ,tell us that a product contains less than 5g of fat,2g of sat fat, and 95 g of cholesterol per serving.
While high cholesterol is a common concern in the United States“Low cholesterol” is a label that is well sought after. To be labeled as such, a product must contain 20 mg or less of cholesterol and equal to or fewer than 2 g of saturated fat per serving. “Reduced Cholesterol” means that a product contains 2 g or less of sat fat and 25 % less cholesterol per serving than a higher cholesterol version.
“ High fiber” and “ good source of fiber” are two more common label claims which, to me, elicit the questions “ what constitutes high fiber?” and “what makes something a good source?”. Here are the answers. A “high fiber” label requires that a food provide 5g of fiber or more per serving while a “good source” of fiber provides 2.5-4.9 g per serving.
For the most part, nutrient labels are based upon serving size. This being said, it is imperative that you are aware of what the serving size being represented is. If you look at a label whose serving size is 1/8 of a cup, but the average portion consumed is 1 cup( 8 servings), a “ low fat” food with 3 g of saturated fat per serving may not end up saving you from the high amount of fat you were trying to avoid in the first place. While not true of all labels, many do use unrealistically small portion sizes in order to be allowed to label themselves favorably. Be cautious and don’t be afraid to really investigate that package before you buy it. I after all, have yet to see a can of soup file a harassment complaint because it was stared at for too long.
In a world full of marketing schemes, knowing what various label claims mean can be of benefit to you in your food shopping endeavors. Remember that if you too covet that Victoria’s Secret body, want that loaded Popeye gun show or desire to prevent/ reverse health disparity, nutrition should be an important part of your life. It is a key component to health that starts with what you choose at the grocery store. Unless you are dependent entirely on your own private garden, livestock raising, cooking and canning skills for nourishment, (very few of us are) it is best to be educated on what you are buying and what label claims really mean.
© Kate Lynch

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