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Decoding Food Labeling

It can get very confusing at the supermarket -- with food packaging carrying all sorts of labels that leap out at you -- such as "organic" and "natural."

What do they really mean?

Registered dietician Keri Glassman offered explanations on The Early Show Wednesday.


"100 Percent Certified Organic" means the product was grown, produced or raised using only methods that are thought to be good for the earth -- that is -- without pesticides, fertilizers, antibiotics, synthetic hormones, or genetic engineering.

"Organic" means the item contains at least 95 percent organic ingredients.

"No Antibiotics" is a label used on meat and poultry that means the animal wasn't given antibiotics routinely to stay healthy.

All chicken, organic or not, is required to be horomone-free, so don't waste time looking for this label.

"No Hormones" means the animal wasn't raised on hormones, commonly given to increase the weight or milk production of the animal.

Most studies suggest that nutrients are equally available in conventional and organic versions.

If you want to buy organic, there are certain foods for which it's more important than others: Fruits and vegetables that have very thin, penetrable skins are more susceptible to pesticides and fertilizers seeping in -- fruits and veggies such as apples, strawberries, peaches, nectarines, peppers, lettuce, pears, and cherries. Also -- be mindful of milk, especially if there are kids in the house who are drinking a lot of it.

If you buy organic-no antibiotic-no hormone chicken, remember that those chickens are just as likely, if not more likely, to carry harmful bacteria such as salmonella and campylobacter, so use food safety practices.

Bottom Line: It's better to have non-organic fruits and vegetables, as opposed to none at all. But, going organic whenever possible for fruits and vegetables that carry the heaviest pesticide load makes sense for the most vulnerable groups -- children and pregnant women.

"Fat Free"

"Fat Free" foods contain less than 0.5 grams of fat per serving.

Be aware that fat free foods (aside from nonfat dairy, fruits and vegetables) often contain more sugar and starch than the full-fat versions. In addition to being void of nutrients, they're not satisfying, so they're easily overeaten.

"Low fat" foods contain three grams of fat or less per serving.

"Light" foods have up to 50 percent less fat and sodium and one-third fewer calories than the original version.

Limiting fat in your diet is a good thing if your diet is high in saturated fat and calories. However, some fat is necessary and will actually help with weight loss and maintenance. Aim to get 25-35 percent of your calories from healthy, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, from foods such as fatty fish like salmon, nuts, avocado, seeds, canola, and olive oils.

Bottom line: Skip the fat-free version and go for low fat or light, or have a small amount of the full-fat version. Make sure to get some healthy fat with each meal to help keep your body burning fat and to keep you feeling satisfied.

"Zero Grams Trans Fat:

The Food and Drug Administration allows food manufacturers to claim zero grams of trans fat as long as the product has less than half -a-gram per serving. These amounts of trans fat may seem insignificant, but they add up to more than what people should consume in a day.

Always read ingredient lists: Often, trans fats are being replaced with unhealthy saturated fats such as palm and coconut oils.

If you have any doubts about ingredients, it's probably not a food that's healthy to begin with.

Typically, foods that have trans fat, even thought they may be limited, are often high in calories and low in nutrients.

"Heart Healthy" is a label often seen on products that are low in saturated fat, cholesterol, and sodium; have zero grams trans fat; contain three grams of fat or less per serving; and have at least 0.6 grams of soluble fiber.

Bottom Line: If you are at risk for heart disease, choose foods with these labels. But remember: The best "heart healthy" foods are those found in the produce aisle! And they don't have such labels.

"Low Sodium"

"Low Sodium" means the product contains 2400 mg of sodium or less per serving

Excess salt in the diet can lead to elevated blood pressure or stroke. It's recommended that adults consume no more than 1300 mg of sodium per day. However, most Americans consume closer to 4000 mg/day.

Foods that are highest in sodium include packaged foods (such as chips and breakfast cereals), frozen foods (frozen dinners), and processed meats (bacon, deli meat, sausages, etc)

Bottom Line: Choose whole foods over packaged or processed foods, and add seasonings such as herbs and spices to add flavor. It's best to buy low-sodium versions of food and add salt during cooking to control the amount you use.

"Whole Grains"

Foods made from the entire grain seed, usually called the kernel, which consists of the bran, germ, and endosperm. If the kernel has been cracked, crushed, or flaked, it must retain nearly the same relative proportions of bran, germ, and endosperm as the original grain in order to be called whole grain.

Whole Wheat:

One type of whole grain. Whole wheat means the entire grain seed (wheat) is used vs. white flour, in which only the endosperm is used. The bran and the germ contain nutrients that are stripped away in the refining process.