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Making Sense of Food Package Facts and Graphics

Have you heard? The FDA recently announced plans to revamp the Nutrition Facts label.

This tool was introduced more than 20 years ago (!) and was designed to help consumers make food choices in the supermarket. Many people think this information has made it even more challenging to figure out food facts.

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To add to the confusion, you might have noticed even more symbols, health claims (reduced sodium, lower fat, gluten free) and nutrition information up front on food packaging. What are these, where do they come from and can they help us make healthier choices?

The first thing to know about these front-of-package labels is that they are not regulated by the FDA. They are individually chosen by food companies, which is why such a variety of emblems and systems exists in the marketplace.

You might be familiar with simple check-mark systems that indicate if a food meets certain criteria. For example, the Heart-Check mark signifies if a food meets guidelines for heart health in terms of sodium, cholesterol and other critical nutrients.

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Courtesy of American Heart Association

Other commonly seen symbols include the Smart Choices mark and the Whole Grain stamp.

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Courtesy of Smart Choices Program and Whole Grain Council

These types of graphics are great because they are an easy flag to show if a food meets certain criteria. They also make it easy to choose between one food that has the mark and one that doesn't. If both have the mark, you'll still need to look at the Nutrition Facts see how they compare in terms of specific nutrients.

You might also see numeric ratings; these can summarize as many as 14 nutrients in a food as one summary value. The NuVal system, seen at Meijer stores, gives foods ratings from 0-100. Numeric systems make it very easy to compare foods. Theoretically, foods with higher values are healthier and should be chosen more often. If strawberries are rated 75 and cookies are rated 25, the choice is clear (at least nutritionally!).

Unfortunately, you could say that much is lost in translation. Numeric systems don't show us which nutrients contribute to the rating, so you'll probably still want to look at the Nutrition Facts label for the full picture.

One change that most people have noticed is the display of key Nutrition Facts information on the front of boxes of cereals and some snack foods. You may see calories, sodium, sugar or fiber alongside the corresponding percent Daily Value. The advantage of this system is that it's easy to see, at a glance, how foods compare.

On the other hand, you still need to have an understanding of which nutrients should be limited (sodium, fat, cholesterol) and which should be encouraged (fiber, vitamins, minerals). This knowledge will help you determine how the food might fit into your overall diet.

Traffic light-style ratings are newer to the game and use colors to signify whether a food is low (green), medium (yellow) or high (red) for things that should moderated like sugar, fat and salt. These systems make it clear which specific nutrients are high or low.

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But it can be confusing if a food has nutrients with different ratings. For example, a healthy frozen meal may be red (high) in sodium, but green (low) for fat. The meal could certainly fit into a healthy eating pattern if you don't eat a lot of other high-sodium foods. But again, it is up to consumers to figure out whether this food is right for them.

Although they can be confusing, these systems can help us navigate the complex nutritional environment if we understand how they work. Each has merits and limitations, but hopefully when you see such information on food packages, you'll know how to make more informed food decisions. Because as they say, knowledge is power.

Today's post was written by Leia Kedem. Leia Kedem, MS, RD, is a registered dietitian and Nutrition & Wellness Educator covering Champaign, Ford, Iroquois, and Vermilion Counties. She appears weekly on WCIA-3/WCIX-49 and is a biweekly contributor to the Champaign-Urbana News-Gazette. She also maintains Facebook and Twitter accounts where she regularly posts health tips and answers nutrition questions for free.

Thanks to Nathan Pratt, dietetic intern at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, for his assistance with this post.