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Nutrition Label Reading for Smarties


Step into any grocery store and you’ll see lots of products with claims like “Multi-grain,” “Healthy,” “All-natural” or “Gluten Free.”  The trouble is, many of these so-called “health foods” contain some of the worst ingredients, including excess sugar, suspect chemicals and additives banned in many other countries.

If this is surprising, consider who ultimately decides whether or not a food can be labeled as healthy in the US.   Not the FDA, as most people believe, it’s the manufacturer!  So the bottom line is, you can’t take what you read on the front label at face value—ever!”  And despite what the title of this article indicates, studies show that 84% of American shoppers are confused about their nutrition choices.  In short, these things are challenging by design.

Food labels are not only confusing, they’re tiny!  But reading them is important, because when you must eat processed (and at least some of the time, most of us must do) you don’t have to eat junk.  By making it hard to read and understand the information listed, manufacturers give themselves plenty of latitude when it comes to ingredients. So even if you can barely make out the words, take the time and do the legwork to source your goods. You’ll be able to navigate the grocery store aisles more easily once you know what to look for.

Here are some basic tips for healthier food selection:

  • For most of us, trying to avoid sugar is like avoiding sun exposure. We know we should, but it’s everywhere and it’s so much fun. But when on average we consume five times the daily recommended allowance of added sugars, limiting is a good idea. Avoid products containing sugar of any kind in the first five ingredients and you’re on the right track.  The recommended sugar intake for adult women is 5 teaspoons (20 grams) of sugar per    day, for adult men, it’s 9 teaspoons (36 grams) daily, and for children, it’s 3 teaspoons (12 grams) a day.                                                                                                                                      
  • Beware of the “natural flavoring” loophole.  Natural flavoring could be anything, and if it was anything healthy, it would be listed.
  • Sodium content should never exceed the number calories; look for a 1:1 ratio. If a serving of Pop Chips contains 100 calories, be sure it also contains less than 100 grams of sodium. Simple!
  • Shift your focus from fat grams per serving, since serving sizes are quite subjective. Fat content should be no more than 20% of the total calorie content and should contain no trans fats. How to tell? Read the Nutrition Label on the back of the package, find the total calories per serving, and divide by 5. If fat calories are more than 20% of total calories, or if it contains hydrogenated anything, it’s not a healthy choice.                                                                                                                                                                        
  • Most of us fall far short of daily fiber recommendations as the chart below indicates, so be sure you’re buying whole grains whenever possible. Claims announcing “Whole-wheat” or “Multi-grain” on the front are not the same thing. Read the Nutrition Label carefully to make sure the word “whole” precedes every grain listed, or look for the “100% whole-grain” claim. This is one term regulated by the FDA to ensure that all grains used in the product are, in fact, whole. Aim for 25-35 grams (g) of total fiber each day –or 6-8 grams per meal, and 3-4 grams per snack
  • Beware of serving sizes. Not all serving sizes are the same, nor do they necessarily make sense. That individually wrapped granola bar may proudly announce only 50 calories per serving, but you’d have to scrutinize the fine print to discover that’s really three servings there.
  • Avoid foods containing ingredients banned in other countries, even though they’re used regularly in the US in items from breakfast cereal to energy bars to Kraft Mac n Cheese. Food colorings like Blue #1, Blue #2, Yellow #5, Yellow #6 and Red #40, BHA, arsenic and more are found in the many of the vitamin fortified family foods we eat every day.   ABC News has a handy slide show with more details here.
  • Avoid products containing sodium nitrate, a preservative that’s commonly used in processed meats like bacon, jerky, and lunch meats. Studies link nitrates to diabetes and heart disease.
  • Eat more whole, plant based foods to meet you daily nutrition requirements!

Check out this chart published by the USDA Dietary Guidelines to see how most of us measure up:


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