What does a food label really tell you?

My wife sometimes gets annoyed with my standing in the grocery isle reading and comparing nutrition labels. I try to eat healthy, so knowing exactly what I’m looking at is important…otherwise I could be thinking that I’m eating good foods when in reality I’m not. Here’s some of the key things that I look at:

– Don’t read the front of the box! It’s all advertising. “trans fat free”, “low fat”, “light”, “organic”, “all natural”, etc. They can put anything they want on the packaging…no one regulates what the label claims.

– Go straight to the Nutrition label and check the serving size and servings per container. I’m not sure who decides on these amounts, but I always eat WAY more than what they call a “serving size”. So keep these amounts in your head as you read the rest of the label.

– Don’t worry about the listed Daily Value percentages. They’re based on government standards, which are not the healthiest guidelines to strive for…just ignore these numbers.

– Calories.color> Remember, this is calories per serving. Don’t get too excited with “0s” either. Because some manufacturers use ridiculously small serving sizes and because the FDA states that manufacturers can “round down” to zero, some products advertised as calorie-free or fat-free are actually not. I don’t count calories, so I don’t spend too much time on this, but anything over 250-300 per serving should sound an alarm.

– Right next to or under calories is “calories from fat”.color> Unfortunately, it doesn’t tell you “percent of calories from fat,” which is how all health guidelines direct us to limit fat. You’ve got to do a little math. Divide the number of calories from fat by the total calories. (If the serving’s 150 calories, 50 of which are fat, your product is 33 percent calories from fat.). You should get 15-20% of your daily calories from fat.

– Total Fat.color> This is the one that most people know to look for. Saturated fat is bad, so is Trans fat…look for low numbers (0g is ideal).

– Sodium (aka salt).color> Limit the sodium in milligrams to no more than the number of calories in each serving. Your daily goal should be less than 1,500mg of sodium. There’s lots of sodium is most packaged foods…look at these numbers carefully.

– Carbohydrates.color> About half of your total daily calories should come from carbs. They are usually listed in grams, so you’ll have to do some math (serving sizes are typically in grams too). While keeping track of the amount of carbohydrates you need every day is important, choosing the right carbohydrate-rich foods is equally important. Don’t worry about higher carb counts on whole grain bread, cereals and pastas, nuts, seeds, legumes, fruits and vegetables.
High carb counts are bad in sugary snacks, pastries, soft drinks, candy, cookies, greasy chips and most processed, packaged snack foods.

– Sugars.color> Fruit naturally contains sugar, so if the food you are looking at contains fruit, don’t be alarmed by a high sugar content. Refer to the list of ingredients to see if sugar has been added.

– Look at the list of ingredients.color>
Bad fats: Saturated fats, hydrogenated fats, tropical oils, including lard, butter, coconut, cocoa butter, palm oils, shortening, margarine, chocolate, and whole and part-skim dairy products.
Good fats: Polyunsaturated fats (like safflower, soybean, corn, and sesame) and monounsaturated fats (such as olive and canola)
Look for “sugar” or sweeteners like corn syrup, rice and maple syrup, molasses, honey, malted barley, barley malt, or any term that ends in “ol,” such as sorbitol or maltitol, or “ose,” such as dextrose or fructose. If any of these are in the first 5 ingredients listed…put it back on the self!

This is a lot to look at, but I typically focus on the Total Fats and sugar content. If you make healthy selections, counting carbs and calories won’t be necessary.

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