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Terms Used to Describe Food Products Can be Confusing

spoon-taste-food-1“Fresh,” “healthy,” “low-fat,” “low-sodium”–we hear these words often when it comes to food products. But some commonly used food terms may be confusing to consumers, says Gayle Coleman, University of Wisconsin-Extension nutrition education specialist.

“Consumers may assume that fresh vegetables are more nutritious than frozen or canned,” says Coleman. “Or they may feel they should buy fresh vegetables for their families, even if the budget is tight and fresh vegetables cost more than frozen.”

Fresh vegetables or fruits are not necessarily healthier than frozen or canned varieties, explains Coleman. Research shows that fresh vegetables and fruits lose nutrients over time and should be eaten as close to harvest as possible. Produce that is frozen or canned is harvested at the peak of ripeness and quickly processed to retain most of its nutrients. Coleman suggests that consumers can benefit from learning the meaning behind some popular food-related words. For example:

Low-fat. Reducing the fat in foods often means increasing the sugar to maintain flavor. Consumers might assume that low-fat means low in calories, which may not be the case. It’s always smart to compare the fat, sugar and calories in similar foods to find the healthiest choice, says Coleman.

Organic. Concerns about consuming pesticide residues have resulted in some consumers not buying fruits and vegetables because they can’t afford organic varieties. Organic refers to how food is produced–not its nutritional value. The nutritional benefits of eating fruits and vegetables, no matter how they were produced, outweigh the risk of pesticide residues, says Coleman. Remember that all fresh fruits and vegetables should be washed under clean water to remove dirt and other contaminants before they are eaten.

Low-sodium, healthy. Although some health-conscious consumers purchase products labeled low-sodium or healthy, food manufacturers have found that many consumers assume these products won’t taste as good and therefore do not purchase them. “Manufacturers have been decreasing the amount of sodium in many products over the years but not calling attention to it because they might scare some customers away,” says Coleman.

Specialty foods. Consumers may consider vitamin-fortified waters, omega-3 fatty acid-enriched eggs and gourmet meats better than standard products and be willing to pay extra for them. Parents may purchase specialty foods at extra expense because they want the best for their children. But not all specialty claims can be verified and some of these items may not be worth the extra cost, says Coleman.

“Be an informed consumer,” says Coleman. “Use the Nutrition Facts and ingredients lists on food packages to compare nutrients and see what’s in the foods you purchase.”
To learn more about nutrition and healthy eating, contact the Winnebago County UW-Extension county office.