Read anything good in the grocery store lately? Not the kind with headlines such as “Giant Killer Tomatoes invade Poland” or “Mother gives Birth to Puppies.” I am talking about food labels. The ability to read and understand food labels is essential if you are interested in weight management, have food allergies, medical conditions that nutrients may improve, or just plain want to know what the heck it is that you are eating.
As you cruise the aisles in your grocery store, the food packaging can be overwhelming. Manufacturers use terms such as low-fat, non-fat, reduced fat, no carb, low carb and even carb aware. Carb aware? I feel that I am very aware of carbs and their potential impact on the size of my rear end! It is enough to make you want to eat out all the time and forget shopping at all. The good news is that the FDA and USDA have made changes on how food packages are labeled to make them more consumer friendly. Their “front of the package” initiative makes it easier than ever to shop healthy.
According to the FDA, all food labels must provide the following:
n Nutrition information for almost every food in a grocery store.
n Distinctive easy-to-read formats that enable consumers to more quickly find the information needed to make healthful food choices.
n Information on the amount per serving of fat, cholesterol, fiber and other nutrients of major health concern.
n Standardized serving sizes to make nutritional comparison of similar products easier.
n Percentages of recommended daily requirements.
n Uniform definitions of terms such as “light,” “low fat” and “high fiber.”
n Claims about the relationship of the nutrient content and a health-related condition such as calcium and osteoporosis or fiber and cancer.
All of these improvements have made reading labels easier, sure, but the ownership is squarely on you. Grab something out of your fridge or cupboard and follow along as I give you a lesson in label reading 101.
n Get the nutrition facts: The important information is shown on the label under the heading “Nutrition Facts.” This will give you the content per serving of the major nutrients. Out to the side are the percent daily values of the nutrients and the footnote shows that these values are based on a 2,000-calorie diet. Trap: Actual caloric and nutritional values very by age, body weight, gender and activity level. Two-thousand calories might be too much for you or too little.
n Serving sizes: Serving sizes used to be left up to the manufacturer’s discretion. Thanks to the FDA, that is no longer true. Portion sizes are measured based on the amounts people might actually eat. Trap: Be sure if you are counting your calories that you record your portions accurately. Take ice cream for instance. Most are based on a half-cup serving. Go ahead and measure it. How many people eat only a half cup?
n Calories: The number of total calories is listed on the left hand side of the label. The total fat is also listed on the side. Trap: Make sure you are careful to read the servings per container. If there are 100 calories per serving in a food, two servings in the package and you eat the whole thing, then guess what? You have doubled the calories and fat you have consumed.
n Watch the fat: Total fat content is listed on the label along with the grams of each type of fat, saturated, unsaturated or trans fats. Trap: Be careful of the low-carb products. In order for things to be low carb and low sugar and not taste like wallpaper paste, more fat is added. Be aware of this when choosing low-carb products.
n Cholesterol, sodium and sugar content: These are included on food labels because of folks having high blood pressure, heart disease and diabetes. If you have any of these conditions, read all labels carefully. Trap: Most processed foods have high contents of these nutrients. Opting for fresh foods is a great way to reduce sodium cholesterol and sugar.
nHeath information: The FDA allows manufacturers to use third parties to verify claims that a food can affect health. Milk is touted to make stronger bones while orange juice has claims to fight cancer. Trap: Most of us have the mentality that some is good and more is better. When it comes to foods used to fight disease, you still need to keep an eye on the portions.
n Ingredients and allergens: New regulations call for labels to list the major nutrients associated with allergic reactions such as nuts, shellfish, milk and wheat. Trap: Most of the time you have to look really hard for these allergy warnings. I am allergic to almonds and have to really skim the fine print on a box of cereal to not be in trouble.
Now is reading labels all that bad? Practice on some items you already have at home so when you are in the store you will be ready to roll. See you at Walmart scanning the cereal aisle for almond–free cereals.
n Kathy Hansen has over 20 years experience in the health and fitness field. She can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org