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Decoding Food Labels

Food advertising can make a product sound healthy, but it may be more hype than reliable information. "Food labels are designed to sell food -- not to educate the consumer," says Jayne Hurley, senior nutritionist at the Center for Science in the Public Interest. "It's important to read the 'Nutrition Facts' and the ingredients list carefully." Some phrases to be wary of:

  • "Real fruit beverage" doesn't mean the drink is 100 percent fruit juice. Even "100 percent of the RDA of vitamin C" doesn't mean that the vitamin C is coming from juice -- it could be a fortified drink. "Punch" and "cocktail" hint that a product doesn't measure up.

  • "Multigrain" doesn't mean that a cereal or bread contains whole-grain flour, which is more nutritious than enriched-wheat or white flour. The food could have a mix of grains -- grains that may be processed and stripped of fiber. Look for whole grain, whole bran, or rolled oats.

  • "Cholesterol-free" isn't low-calorie or low-fat. Chips, for example, are cholesterol-free, because cholesterol comes from animal -- not vegetable -- products.

  • "Reduced fat" isn't fat-free. According to the FDA, a "fat-free" product has less than one-half gram of fat per serving; "low-fat" foods have three grams of fat or less; "reduced fat" cuts 25 percent of fat from the original food.

  • "Lean ground beef" doesn't mean the beef is low in fat. Look for labels that say, "contains no more than 5 percent fat" or "at least 95 percent fat-free."

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