WASHINGTON - You know it's important to check food labels when you go grocery shopping. But how much of that information is fact and how much is hype?
Paul Kita, a senior editor with Men's Health magazine, has been looking into the labeling phenomenon. He says marketers put their best stuff on the front of the package. The theory is that a shopper will focus on that, and claims on the front will make the sale.
He says look elsewhere for the information that's important.
"Flip the product to the back or side," he suggests, "and look for the no-so- glamorous nutrition label."
Kita says the back label isn't as flashy as the claims on the front of the packaging, but it is the best, most accurate information on exactly what the food product contains.
That's because the nutrition facts panel is regulated by the government. Everything else on the package is at the discretion of the food companies.
"It is sort of a wild west," Kita explains, "and companies can put on any kind of claims that they want."
One of the best examples: All those cookies and crackers that come in boxes with the words "reduced fat" in big letters.
"This is a nutrition claim zombie from the 1980s that will just not die," says Kita.
He says many studies show reduced fat foods really are a diet disaster. That's because when the fat comes out, something else goes in -- usually sugar or salt.
Kita urges suspicion of labels that claim a product is a great source of protein -- especially cereals and drinks.
Protein is an important nutrient. But most of those products that say they have extra protein, in fact, have very little. The average man needs 20-40 grams of protein per serving, about the equivalent of four ounces of chicken. Women need a bit less. Cereals that claim to be a great source of protein have about 10 grams, while the new "protein waters" have five.
The irony is, the real story is right on the nutrition facts label. And look closely because the label not only lists the grams of carbohydrate, fiber, sodium and protein in the product, but also what kind of protein. Kita says watch out for those with chemical-sounding names, and realize that a better choice is protein in its natural state.
The Food and Drug Administration has plenty of good information online, including a primer on how to read those nutrition labels. The FDA launched an initiative in 2009 to convince manufacturers to drop excessive packaging claims.
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