If you have just made the decision to start eating more healthfully, you may find that shopping takes a lot longer. It’s easy to whittle away several minutes studying nutrition labels trying to determine which bread is more nutritious or how much sodium is in that can of soup.
If you have just made the decision to start eating more healthfully, you may find that shopping takes a lot longer. It’s easy to whittle away several minutes studying nutrition labels trying to determine which bread is more nutritious or how much sodium is in that can of soup. If you do this for several items, a simple shopping trip can turn into an all-day outing. Nutrition labels can be misleading and confusing if you don’t know what you should be comparing those numbers to or aren’t sure what’s important to consider. Here are some tips to help you spend less time at the supermarket.
First, look at the serving size and servings per container. Serving size is decided by the manufacturer, which supposedly based it on what the average person eats. But, manufacturers can manipulate the number of servings per container so that a food appears lower in calories, fat or sodium at first glance.
If a can of soup says it serves two but you usually eat the whole can, you have to double the nutrition information. Beverages are especially misleading because what looks like a single serve bottle may actually say it contains multiple servings. Cereal is another tricky one because manufacturers are not consistent with serving sizes. A serving of one cereal might be 1 cup and another just ¼ cup. This makes it difficult to compare the two.
The “% Daily Value” column shows the percentage of the daily recommended amount of each nutrient in the food based on a 2,000 calorie diet. Because we all do not eat 2,000 calories a day this number doesn’t do us a lot of good. However, it can be useful for determining whether a serving is high or low in a particular nutrient. Those that have 5 percent or less are low in the nutrient, while those 20 percent or higher means it is a good source of that particular nutrient, like fiber, calcium, vitamin A, Vitamin C or iron. When comparing fat, saturated fat, cholesterol or sodium, you want that number to be less than 20 percent.
The next thing to look at is the calories. Remember, this is per serving so it depends on how much you actually eat. Although counting calories is useful if you are trying to lose weight, the total calories really don’t indicate how nutritious the food is.
The calories from fat column isn’t very useful either, unless you are good at number crunching. For a healthy diet, calories from fat should not be more than 35 percent of the total calories.
Instead of dwelling on the calories from fat, look at the total fat found in the food. Remember, less than 5 percent is low, more than 20 percent is high. Saturated fat should be no more than 7 percent of your total diet, but no need for a calculator — just choose foods with less than 20 percent saturated fat.
Trans fat should be zero, but remember you have to read the ingredient list because of a loophole allowing up to .5 g of trans fat to be listed as zero. If there is partially-hydrogenated anything in the food, then it contains trans fat and should be avoided.
Cholesterol is another area you can generally skip. Just know that 200 mg of cholesterol a day is a good maximum, and only foods containing animal products will have any cholesterol at all.
Most people reading labels are paying attention to the sodium. Choosing foods with less than 300 mg sodium per serving is a good guideline for a heart healthy diet. Highly processed foods and raw meats injected with a salty solution is where you will find most high sodium levels.
Total carbohydrates is important to check if you have diabetes in order to control your blood sugar. The sugars listed under the total carbohydrates doesn’t specify the type of sugar. If the product contains milk or fruit, then those natural sugars can fit into a healthy diet. If the sugar is coming from added sugar, you should limit this to 24 grams to 32 grams per day. Read the ingredient list to see if the product contains added sugar, and don’t be fooled by the many different names for sugar. It doesn’t matter to our body whether it’s sucrose, high fructose corn syrup, brown rice syrup or any other sweetener — it’s all used the same.
Most people are not at risk of receiving too little protein, so that’s another column that can mostly be ignored. The vitamins on the food label are the ones that are essential for all Americans. If you are deficient in specific vitamins or minerals, then you may want to pay attention to this section. Otherwise, you can skip it. Just remember that 20 percent or more is high and less than 5 percent is low.
It’s always good to take a peek at the ingredient list so you know what’s in your food. Ingredients are listed based on the weight of the total amount of ingredients in the product. The fewer the ingredients, the better. If you can’t pronounce an ingredient, you might be better off to just leave it on the shelf.
Front-of-the-package claims, like “no trans fat,” “heart healthy” or “lowers cholesterol” are not necessarily true. These claims are meant to grab your attention and cause you to buy the product without careful scrutiny.
Remember, the only way to know for certain what’s in a food is to read the ingredient list and the nutrition label!
Anita Marlay, R.D., L.D., is a dietitian in the cardiac rehab department at Lake Regional Health System in Osage Beach.