How To Read Food Labels
Most of us don't pay much attention to nutrition labels on food products. Among those of us who do spend time studying it, calories and fat usually are what is considered, which aren't actually the most important factors.
If this sounds like your shopping style, then your cart probably contains items you think are good for you but really aren't, like diet soda, low-fat crackers or cookies, and pretzels. You might be passing on items high in calories and fat such as nuts and olive that are actually healthful.
1. Ingredients are organized in descending order from the most to least prevalent component. The fewer the ingredients, the better. And if you recognize - and can pronounce- all of them, that's even better.
2. Any nutritional info you see is based on a single serving of the product. While this could be the whole package, it's usually just a small portion. Even foods you'd normally finish in one sitting, such as a muffin, can be broken down into multiple servings, so it's important to check to make sure you know how much you're eating. To avoid being misled, look at "serving size" and "servings per container".
3. Generally, foods with fewer than 150 calories per serving are "low cal", while those with more than 400 per serving are considered "high cal".
4. Most of us don't get enough dietary fiber, so choose higher fiber foods with 4 to 5 grams per serving.
5. It doesn't distinguish on the label between naturally occurring sugars (like lactose in milk or fructose in fruit) and added sugar (like high-fructose corn syrup or brown rice syrup). Look at the ingredients for sources of added sugar.
Check for the words sugar, as in palm sugar or invert sugar; sweetener, as in corn sweetener, or syrup, as in brown rice syrup or malt syrup. Also watch for words ending in ose, like fructose or glucose.
If sugar is one of the first two ingredients, don't bring it home. Remember, ingredients are ordered by volume, so the higher up on the list an ingredient is, the more of it a product contains. This is an easy way to spot foods that include a lot of added sugar. (Naturally occurring sugar won't be listed here).
6. If most of the fat content comes from healthy unsaturated fat, you're probably good to go. If the fat is mainly saturated and/or the product has any trans fat, put it back on the shelf. Trans fat has been shown to increase levels of "bad" LDL cholesterol while decreasing levels of "good" HDL cholesterol.
Don't be fooled by a label that lists 0 grams trans fat. Because of a labeling loophole, a product can contain up to 0.5 g trans fat per serving and say it has none. Check the ingredient list: if it includes partially hydrogenated oil, then there is trans fat in there. Shortening is another source of trans fat.
7. Excess sodium can raise blood pressure, which increases heart disease risk, and it may be a sign of a more highly processed food.
8. To identify heart-healthy and fiber-rich whole grains, look for the word whole before the name of any grain, as in whole wheat. Oatmeal and quinoa are also considered whole grains. If you see the word enriched before a grain, it means that the grain has been refined. Most of the grain's nutrients including fiber is contained in the germ and bran, which is removed in grains that have been refined.
Keep in mind that most foods with nutrition labels are packaged products (snacks, cereals, desserts, dairy...) that shouldn't fill more than 25% of your cart. The rest should be label-less whole fruits, veggies, and lean proteins.