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Feb 23, 2012 10:58 AM by Brittany Wooley- KTVQ News

Taking the guess work out of food labels

BILLINGS- Grocery store aisles are lined with foods claiming to be all natural, fat-free, and organic-- claims that can be misleading to even the most health conscious consumer.

More than half Americans said they don't fully understand how to read food labels, and an even higher percentage of consumers don't trust nutritional claims.

That is according to a recent Internet survey by the Nielsen polling firm of more than 25,000 consumers from 56 countries during the last year.

"[This box of toaster pastries]is organic, but really this is not the place to be spending your organic dollars. I might even go as far as calling this junk food. It's got a long list of ingredients. It even has some ingredients that are not recognizable. Just because it says it's organic doesn't mean it's healthy," registered dietitian Tracy Konoske said.

Most approach labels with skepticism. More than 2/3 of Nielson's survey respondents said they only sometimes or never believe nutritional claims.

"There is a lot of merit behind the skepticism. The food manufacturers are allowed 20-percent margin of error. If they say there are 100 calories per serving, there actually could be 120. Most people will eat more than one serving which adds up. Just 100 extra calories a day is 10 pounds a year," Konoske said.

Sugar-free and fat-free products can actually contain up 0.5 grams of sugar and fat per serving. Serving sizes aren't standardized, so manufacturers can manipulate it to make a product appear healthier than it actually is.

When looking at a label, Konoske suggests first examining the serving size and calculating calories, fat, and sodium. This means consumers should multiply the amounts posted on the label by how many servings are in the container.

"Serving sizes are what get most people. There might be 150 calories per serving of potato chips. Some people assume that means there are 150 calories in the small bag, when there are actually two or three servings. That is a lot of extra calories as well as fat and sodium," Konoske said.

After checking the serving size, Konoske said to move down to the ingredient list. Ingredients are listed in order of greatest predominance by weight. She said if sugar or other undesirable ingredients are near the top, don't make the purchase.

"The tricky part to that is manufacturers know this obviously, so they use sugar, maple syrup, brown rice syrup. Sugar might be the main ingredient but because they used three different kinds, it doesn't come up that way," she said.

According to another Nielsen survey, 54-percent of all cereals are labeled as "whole grain" while the main ingredient is sugar.

The statement "no cholesterol" is also misleading. Konoske said only animal products contain cholesterol. Since potato chips aren't animal-based, they aren't going to contain cholesterol. But, she said people see the statement "no cholesterol" on the label and assume it's healthy when it is actually a fried food heavy in fat and sodium.

Konoske said the healthiest foods don't come in boxes.

"If it comes with a label and if that label has more than three to five ingredients and words you can't pronounce, you should probably just put it back on the shelf and walk over to this beautiful produce section," she said.

Konoske recommends spending organic dollars on produce that could otherwise be affected by chemicals like peaches, apples, cherries, and tomatoes as well as their juices. She also suggests making a goal of eating every color of produce each day.

If consumers worried about what is in their food, Konoske said to visit a local farmers market or health food store and ask.

On Friday, Q2 will have a story on how food can cause and cure a variety of health issues.

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