Strolling into the grocery store to look for gluten-free or all-natural products is becoming much easier nowadays as these segments of the food industry are booming.

With more and more people turning to these products to cut back on consuming processed meats, salty foods and sugary drinks, understanding the fine print listed on food labels can be much like trying to decipher hieroglyphic codes.

Words like “100 percent juice (or pure),” “reduced fat” and “cholesterol free” – touted by many manufacturers as the new wave of improved dietary requirements – can leave many feeling overwhelmed and downright confused.

Many nutritionists in the Golden Isles know this and urge residents to keep an eye on labels that may be intentionally misleading.

“Every food manufacturer on a state and national level must adhere to FDA regulations ... (which) like with organic products requires a lot of certifications. There are certainly ways to get around it, but it’s going to be very bad for business, especially if someone who has a gluten sensitivity gets gluten in their system and has a reaction,” said Thom Davis, certified nutritionist for Feelin’ Great Health and Wellness Center in Brunswick.

Knowing what to look for and avoid begins with the Nutrition Facts label, something the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is actively proposing to update.

The new requirements the FDA wants adopted into the label, which has been in use for 20 years, include greater understanding of nutrition science, an updated serving size and new labeling requirements for certain package sizes, and a refreshed design.

Mimi McGee says the Nutrition Facts label is the only place that a potential consumer should look for accurate information.

“Never believe what is anywhere on the package except within the Nutrition Facts Label box. This is the only place where you will almost find the truth as it is governed by the ‘Truth in Labeling’ laws and the USDA. Even here, the figures are misleading,” said McGee, who is a chef and nutritionist. She also is a Food for Life Instructor who teaches cooking and nutrition classes and operates the Leafy Café Meals to Go services at St. Simons Health and Fitness Club.

“Anything outside of that black box ... might be true but is not legally bound to being so. It’s mostly advertising space and within the black box, you find a confusing version of the truth.”

One example that she points to is the product Pan Release Sprays like PAM.

“The Nutrition Facts label claims the product to be ‘0 percent from fat’ when in fact, the contents are 100 percent fat. What else is olive oil, canola oil or others used in this product?”

The update, the FDA found, is proving to be a necessary step toward painting an accurate picture of the nutritional content of the foods. In fact, a U.S. Department of Agriculture study released earlier last year said 42 percent of working adults used the panel always or most of the time in 2009 and 2010, up from 34 percent two years earlier. Older adults were more likely to use it.

Food labels are required to have nutrition facts, serving sizes, DV (or daily value) and ingredients, but where some consumers fall into the trap, Davis says, is by certain health-conscious claims like “sugar free,” “low fat” and “fat free” in pursuit of gluten-free and all-natural food items.

His response to those claims: “Look for artificial, synthetic or red, yellow or blue colors (in the ingredient list). This means the product has been altered, which would not make it all-natural.

“Make sure to look at products that say ‘light’ because manufacturers can change the color (of the product) from dark to light ... (and) look out for ones that list artificial flavoring and have a sugar substitute. Though bad fats are being removed, try and avoid products with partially-hydrogenated oils (which is another term for trans fat).”

Compare and contrast a product from home with one in store to avoid being misled. Also when reviewing products, make sure to read serving sizes; check calories; limit saturated/trans fat, cholesterol and sodium; and stock up on dietary fiber, Vitamin A, C and D, calcium, iron and potassium.

If you are tossing out the gluten as part of your diet, Davis says your body can ultimately suffer some consequences.

“Gluten-free should only come into play if you have Celiac disease or a gluten issue. There has been a portion of people that have developed an inflammation from not having gluten. If you suspect these things are happening and you aren’t medically diagnosed, I’d say avoid whole wheat so that you aren’t restricted from everything you try to eat,” Davis said.

“Eating whole foods and garden-grown foods (can help with food labeling confusion). Many people get confused by the percentage listed on labels so they take multivitamins to supplement because they’re probably not getting enough of the nutrients they need.”

Davis urges consumers to listen to their bodies and assess their needs, and if there are physical symptoms going on with them, they should seek a dietitian’s or a nutritionist’s help.

“You have to modify your zone with good protein, good carbs and good fats. Eat more protein in the morning and more carbs in the afternoon and fats throughout the day because they provide good fuel. When you eat you should have energy. Toy with it until it’s in your zone,” he said.

McGee agrees. “Read the ingredients in the NF box and if you don’t know what it is, can’t pronounce it or if it has way too many ingredients and salt, fat or sugar are in the top 3, avoid that item,” McGee said.

“There are three macro-nutrients (carbohydrates, fat and protein) and hundreds of micro-nutrients our bodies need to function in optimal health. Source most of your diet from a variety of non-packaged whole foods, avoiding or seriously limiting processed and packaged as well as restaurant foods to be sure you are consuming enough nutrients.”

Reporter Brittany Tate writes about lifestyle topics. Contact her at btate@thebrunswicknews.com or at 265-8320.