Reading Nutrition Labels

By Simone Stromer, MD, CHC [AADP]
Which is the healthiest bread to buy? What salad dressing isn’t bad for you? Which spaghetti sauce has the lowest sugar content? These are common questions get asked by clients who, like many of us, are concerned about making the healthiest choice when selecting basic grocery items. The simple answer may be to go for the item that says “natural”, “pure”, or “organic” on its label; however, the problem is that often these descriptions are misleading, and misrepresent the true ingredients in the product. The Nutrition Facts label and ingredients list (usually on the back or side of the product)—required by the Food and Drug Administration on most packaged food and beverage products— is your best friend when it comes to deciphering between products and deciding which is the healthiest option for you and your family.
The Nutrition Facts label provides standardized information about the nutrient content of the product such as calories, fat, sodium, fiber, and sugars. The label is supposed to help you decide whether a food or beverage fits in to your eating plan, but unless you truly understand what you are reading and its significance, it can also lead you down the wrong path. Here are some basic steps to help to guide you through the process of interpreting the Nutrition Facts Label:
1. Read the list of ingredients which is usually next to the nutrition information. The longer the ingredients list, the more likely the food is processed. Any ingredients that are unfamiliar are usually artificial or a preservative of some kind, and probably should be avoided. You will be able to see if there is added sugar or other sweeteners by reading the list carefully.
2. Move on to the nutrition facts, and first check the serving size and calories, especially if you are watching your weight. From this you can work out if the food has a reasonable energy density or if it has excessive calories.
3. Know how many servings in the product, called “Servings Per Container”. This is usually a good reflection of how many people can be fed.
4. Check sodium and saturated fat, particularly if you have high blood pressure and/or cholesterol. Reasonable amounts for these conditions are less than 1 gram of saturated fat and 140 milligrams or less of sodium.
5. Check total fat in grams. Low fat usually means less than 3 grams of total fat per serve.
6. Check fiber content. High fiber means more than 5 grams of fiber.
The more practice you get reading food labels, the better you can become in using them as a tool to plan your diet, and the less time you will need to spend trying to choose between products that all look so similar, but really are not!

Simone Stromer, MD, CHC [AADP]
Free one hour initial health and nutrition consultation for readers

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