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Understanding food packaging and labels

Wednesday - 5/29/2013, 10:28am  ET

FoodLabels.jpg
Josef Brandenburg offers advice for shoppers confused by food labels. (Thinkstock)

Josef Brandenburg, special to wtop.com

WASHINGTON - A healthy diet is a key component to looking and feeling your best. And one way to ensure your food is healthy is by the information on the label.

Many health conscious shoppers rely on food labels to determine the nutritional value of a product. But while labels are designed to help consumers, they often cause confusion.

Here are some suggestions on how you can avoid feeling overwhelmed in the aisle by product information.

Healthy food doesn't need a label.

Pick up a fresh apple. What does its label read? The majority of food sold in boxes, bags and bottles contain preservatives and other additives. Stick to the perimeter of the store for the freshest and most nutritious food.

Labels lie.

Stay skeptical. Health and nutrition claims on food packaging can be meaningless or misleading. Take agave nectar, for example. Companies that market food put "sweetened with agave nectar" on packages, implying the natural quality of agave is a benefit. However, just because something occurs naturally doesn't mean it's healthy.

Companies also market products with agave as containing a "low glycemic index." It's true that agave nectar has a low glycemic index because it has more fructose than other sweeteners. But fructose does not provide energy, and essentially ends up being metabolized as empty calories, which creates more fat and wreaks metabolic havoc on your liver.

Read the ingredient list.

Flip the product over. The ingredient list on the back of the package contains important information on the product. This is where both the ingredient list and the nutrition facts chart are located.

However, sometimes these, too, can be misleading.

Take, for example, conventional fat-free cooking sprays. The nutrition facts label says 0 grams of fat per serving. Consumers stop there. But if you look a little closer, you'll see that it's not entirely accurate.

The main ingredient in these cooking sprays is canola oil, which by definition is pure fat. And the label's fine print says that canola oil adds a trivial amount of fat.

So how can the oil add only a "trivial amount" of fat? By law, when a product has less than 0.5 grams of fat per serving, the manufacturer can round the fat content listed down to zero.

The trick is to make the serving size so small that 0.5 grams will not register. Therefore, a can of pure fat can be labeled as fat-free. But how many servings do you really use when you spray that can? Think about it. Chances are, you're adding fat content to your food.

Editor's Note: Josef Brandenburg is a D.C.area fitness expert with 14 years of experience and co-author of the international best-selling book "Results Fitness." In 2004, he started The Body You Want personal training program, which specializes in helping you get the body you want in the available time you have. You can also check out his blog, follow him on Twitter, or check out his fitness videos on YouTube. Follow @WTOP and @WTOPliving on Twitter.

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