You read labels at the supermarket so you can make the healthiest choices. But how do you decide between pasta sauce with “reduced sodium” and another that’s labeled “low sodium”?
Here’s a guide from ShopSmart, the shopping magazine from the publisher of Consumer Reports, to help you tell the difference between some similar-sounding label claims and ingredients that can trip you up.
‘Hydrogenated Oils’ or ‘Partially Hydrogenated Oils’
What’s better: Neither (but PHOs should be banned entirely!)
Why: Both oils are commonly used in processed foods and help prolong shelf life and improve texture. But PHOs (a main ingredient in some stick margarines) are a major source of heart-harming trans fats, which raise dangerous LDL cholesterol and lower HDL cholesterol — the healthy kind. Hydrogenated fats, on the other hand, are similar to saturated fats. They might raise LDL, but they don’t have a negative effect on healthy HDLs. Although fully hydrogenated oils may seem to have a slight edge, they’re not harmless. They’re still a source of saturated fat, and if a label lists hydrogenated oil, it’s possible that the food could contain some trans fat. In addition to butter substitutes, you may find them in cake icing, commercial baked goods, microwave popcorn and other foods.
‘Multigrain’ or ‘Whole Grain’
What’s better: “Whole grain”
Why: “Multigrain” doesn’t necessarily mean that the grains are whole and contain all of the essential parts and nutrients of the original kernel — just that the food contains more than one type of grain. The only way to ensure you’re getting whole grains is to look for ingredients such as whole-wheat flour.
‘Reduced Fat’ or ‘Low Fat’
What’s better: “Low fat”
Why: You’ll always know what you’re getting when you choose a low-fat food: 3 grams or less of fat per serving. “Reduced fat” isn’t as straightforward, ShopSmart notes. It simply means the food has at least 25 percent less fat than its regular version, which could be high in fat to begin with.
‘Excellent Source of Fiber’ or ‘Made with Extra Fiber’
What’s better: “Excellent source”
Why: An “excellent source” or “high fiber” food has a federally defined standard: It must have at least 5 grams of fiber per serving (20 percent of the daily recommended value, or DV); a “good source” must have at least 2.5 grams per serving (10 percent of the DV). By definition, a food with “extra fiber” should supply at least 10 percent more of the DV per serving than a similar food.
‘Sugar-Free’ or ‘No Added Sugar’
What’s better: Neither
Why: A “sugar-free” label means that the food has less than a half-gram of sugar per serving. A “no sugars added” claim means only that sugar wasn’t added in processing. But the food may not be sugar-free, and if its ingredients are high in sugars anyway, it could still pack a lot of calories.
‘No Nitrates or Nitrites Added’ or ‘Uncured’
What’s better: Neither
Why: Sodium nitrate and sodium nitrite are compounds added to processed meats such as bacon and ham to “cure” them, boosting shelf life, improving flavor and adding color. But both are additives you don’t want to consume in unlimited quantities because they’re associated with the formation of possible cancer-causing nitrosamines on meat and in the body. The government allows “no nitrates added” and “uncured” labels when meat is cured with celery juice or powder, but those ingredients can naturally produce nitrates and must be highlighted on the label.
‘Low Sodium’ or ‘Reduced Sodium’
What’s better: “Low sodium”
Why: To earn a “low sodium” label, a food must contain no more than 140 milligrams per serving. Even better but harder to find is a “very low sodium” food, which by definition has a scant 35 milligrams per serving or less. But because a reduced sodium food needs to be only 25 percent lower than the regular version, says ShopSmart, it can still pack a lot of sodium.
2014 Consumers Union Inc.