Decoding Nutrition Labeling

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You're standing in the cereal aisle and faced with a difficult question - do you pick the package touting whole grains or the one with the "Sensible Solution" banner? The one suggesting it's a "Smart Choice" or displaying a "Smart Spot?"

Recently it seems that in an effort to make grocery shopping easier, a few too many cooks got into the kitchen and made a royal mess of it all. The tricky part is that each of the aforementioned nutrition labeling systems, along with many others, has its own set of criteria. They're similar, yes, but none are perfect and they can certainly be a confusing eye-sore for those trying to get in and out of the store quickly.

There is some good news. The Food and Drug Administration, which regulates nutrition labeling, is working to update the famous (infamous for some) black and white Nutrition Facts Panel found on the majority of items in the grocery store. Better yet, the FDA is planning to come down hard on the food companies that make their products look healthier than they actually are. The FDA's ultimate goal is to create a uniform labeling system and establish industry wide standards for nutrition claims. In the meantime, we'll take a look at what's out there today.

Nutrition labeling systems have actually been around since the mid-90s when the American Heart Association launched the Heart Check label to promote heart healthier food products. PepsiCo and Kraft Foods followed about a decade later with their Smart Spot and Sensible Solution products respectively, which indicate "better for you" items. Other large corporations followed suit with their own versions, and recently supermarket chains have launched their own campaigns, with their own criteria, with their own objectives of highlighting the best of the best when it comes to more waistline-friendly products.

The trouble is, we're not comparing apples to orange, but rather Cocoa Krispies to...Fruit Loops.

In an already overwhelming supermarket, the plethora of nutrition labeling separate from the FDA regulated Nutrition Facts Panel only makes matters worse. So what should you do? Keep in mind that each labeling system has its own standards for determining which products get stars or flags or thumbs up or what have you; each system also has slightly different priorities-- heart healthy vs. low carb vs. low calorie vs. MUST SELL THIS. Regardless of the standards used (some are published, but most are not) you need to keep the bigger picture in mind.

For example, when shopping for cereal go with what you know - a good source of fiber without lots of added sugars, and avoid the word "cookie or cocoa" in the title. If you're shopping for soda go with diet, if you want pasta look for whole grain, if you want something sweet focus more on portions sizes than anything else. Get the chocolate cake if you crave it, but only eat a small slice or buy pre-portioned "diet" desserts if you don't trust your will power.

Most importantly, go in with a list, and come out with what was on your list. Plan meals ahead to save money, time and calories. Whenever possible, avoid the middle aisles. Focus on the perimeter-- dairy, meat, deli, and produce. And when in doubt, keep Michael Pollan's mantra in your head_ "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants."

Stay tuned next week for Part II where we'll take an even closer look at label claims and % Daily Value.

Tanya Zuckerbrot, MS, RD is a nutritionist and founder of

. She is also the creator of The F-Factor DietaC/, an innovative nutritional program she has used for more than ten years to provide hundreds of her clients with all the tools they need to achieve easy weight loss and maintenance, improved health and well-being. For more information log onto