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Glenn D. Braunstein, M.D.

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The Name Game: It's Time to Play Food Detective

Posted: 03/23/10 04:14 PM ET

They say don't judge a book by its cover -- and in many cases, the same holds true for food packaging. Choosing a healthy bread, cereal or other common grocery item should be easy -- especially when each is bursting with buzzwords like "whole grain," "natural" and "organic." In a very health-conscious city like Los Angeles, these words matter to consumers.

But what do they mean? For example, you might assume that a snack proclaiming that it contains "0 trans fat" doesn't contain any trans fat.

And you'd be wrong.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration plans to propose guidelines for "front of package" labeling intended to help consumers make healthy choices. In early March, the FDA issued warning letters to 17 manufacturers informing them that labeling for 22 products have run afoul of laws requiring labels to be truthful and not misleading.

It's a worthy issue for the FDA to address, but in the meantime, consumers may still be scratching their heads over what otherwise simple terms really mean.

Here's a little glossary that might help you out the next time you're perusing the aisles of your local market.

Trans Fat Free: Trans fats are created when hydrogen is added to liquid vegetable oils to make them more solid. They raise your LDL ("bad") cholesterol, and tend to lower your HDL ("good") cholesterol levels. Food packaging can claim "0 Trans Fat" if the product contains less than .5 grams of trans fat per serving under FDA guidelines. In a single serving, .5 grams is a small amount. However, pay attention to portion sizes, and be aware when you eat multiple servings of "0 Trans Fat" foods. You may be consuming more trans fat than you thought.

"Partially hydrogenated" is the phrase to look out for in the ingredients. It basically means trans fat. Also, even if something is trans fat free, that doesn't mean it isn't high in saturated fat.

Whole Grain: Under FDA guidelines, to use the term "whole grain" a product must contain the three main ingredients of cereal grains: bran, endosperm and the germ. Bran is the fiber-rich outer coating of the grain kernel. Endosperm is the next layer in -- and the part of the grain that usually survives in processed grains. The germ is the heart of the kernel.

The key with whole grains is to look at the ingredient list. If the first ingredient is "enriched wheat flour," you're not getting much whole grain. "Enriched" means the grain has been processed and stripped of some of the nutrient-rich parts. To make sure you are getting bran, endosperm and the germ in bread products, look for whole wheat flour, oat flour or bran flour as a top ingredient. In pastas, look for whole wheat semolina flour. Choose brown or wild rice over white for a dose of whole grains.

Healthy: There are conditions set by the FDA to use the term "healthy," and related terms including "health," "healthful," "healthfulness." The foods must be low in total fat, low in saturated fat, low in sodium, low in cholesterol and contain at least 10 percent of the daily value for vitamins A, C, calcium, iron, protein or fiber with the exception of raw fruits and vegetables, and some canned fruits and vegetables.

However, just because this definition exists, doesn't mean it's always followed. One of the products slapped with a warning letter was a Ken's Healthy Options Salad Dressings. Despite using the word "healthy," the dressings have more fat than allowed by the guildelines, according to the FDA.

Natural: Looking around the supermarket, you'll spy an array of products proclaiming they are "natural" or "all natural." So, what is natural? For everything except meat and poultry, natural is in the eye of the beholder.

There is no formal FDA definition for natural. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has a legal definition of natural, but it only applies to meat and poultry: products that claim they are "natural" must be free of artificial flavoring, artificial colors, chemical preservatives, or artificial or synthetic ingredients. In addition, they must be only "minimally processed" -- that is any processing must not fundamentally change the raw product.

Also keep in mind that even products made entirely with natural ingredients -cheese, for example -- may be high-fat or high-calorie foods that should be enjoyed in moderation.

Organic: Food that carries the USDA organic seal has met the agency's standards for growing, harvesting and processing. To qualify as organic, farms must comply with restrictions on pesticides, hormones and antibiotics. Further, they cannot be treated with any fertilizer made with synthetic ingredients or sewage sludge, not be the product of bioengineering or treated with ionizing radiation. To buy organic, first look for the USDA seal. Then, see if it is also marked "100% Organic," -- that distinguishes it from foods that are marked only "Organic," in which 95 percent or more of the ingredients meet the criteria. Foods with at least 70 percent organic ingredients may be labeled "Made with Organic Ingredients."

Worth noting is that foods labeled "free-range," "hormone free" or "natural" are not necessarily organic. Look for the seal.

Don't be fooled by inviting green packages brandishing buzzwords. Follow these tips, and when in doubt, look to the nutrition information labeling on the back or side of the box. Trust your own common sense -- if a food is marked trans fat free, but packs a high dose of saturated fat, consider it a conscious indulgence, not a healthy choice. If there are dozens of ingredients listed, feel free to be skeptical that the box you're holding contains a "natural product."