Zero Trans Fats: do you believe it?

September 12, 2014

Are trans fats hiding in your foods? Find out here and four other things you need to know about food label tricks.

Do you sometimes spend extra time at the market and still walk out unsure about what you’ve bought? If you avoid certain foods because of dietary choices or restrictions, you know that label reading can be downright maddening. Here are five things you need to know about label claims and how to navigate the nutrition facts label.

Trans Fat Free
Foods must contain fewer than half a gram of trans fat per serving to get the "zero trans fat" label. That’s right, so if a product has a little less than a half-gram of trans fat per serving it can be labeled zero trans fats. The issue here is that it’s been advised to avoid trans fats altogether, and if you are eating several servings of “zero trans fats” foods per day, you’re definitely getting some in your diet. Check labels for “partially hydrogenated” oils as this is an indication of trans fats, even if the label says zero.

With Omega-3s
Heart-healthy omega-3s are a requirement for good health, but today we see claims on everything from peanut butter to bread to nutrition bars. The issue here is that some products contain only a small fraction of the healthy fat per serving. Rather than shelling out extra cash for fortified products, you're better off following the American Heart Association's guidelines, which recommend eating at least two 3.5 ounce weekly servings of fatty fish like salmon, mackerel or trout to get the most omega-3s in your diet. Not a fish person, add chia, flax, and walnuts to your salads, soups and smoothies for plant based omega-3s.

This might come as a shock, but foods labeled “nondairy” can in fact contain milk proteins, thanks to FDA regulations that do not define nondairy as milk-free. In fact, “nondairy” products are allowed to contain up to 0.5 percent milk by weight, typically as milk proteins like casein. Reading ingredients is key here; if the product contains milk it will be clearly stated within the ingredients list or in a “contains” statement at the bottom.

High in Fiber
You can find it on bread, energy bars, waffles and even drinks – the high fiber claim. Some of these can deliver up to 35 percent of your daily fiber requirement per serving, but take note that much of the fiber is added (not intrinsically found in the foods) and can be man-made or extracted from plants. We know that fiber is good for our health, but most of the studies have focused on high-fiber foods, not those fortified with extra fiber. If you already enjoy products with the high fiber claim, continue, but if you are looking to increase your fiber intake, look for natural sources like beans, oats, berries, and broccoli.

Ever wondered what maltodextrin was and if it was safe or natural? Or possibly even gluten free? Well, the “malt” in barley malt, malt syrup, and malt extract indicates the presence of gluten. Luckily, maltodextrin is actually gluten free. It can be derived from a variety of starches, but products made in the United States are unlikely to use wheat; and even if it is derived from wheat, maltodextrin is such a highly processed ingredient that the protein is removed, making it gluten free. Still, (and this makes it confusing!) when it’s made from wheat starch, “wheat” must be declared on the label - then it’s up to you if you are comfortable eating it.