Americans are increasingly more health-conscious, insisting on healthier
foods in the grocery store and better reporting of product ingredients.
But even as we’re demanding changes to our food supply, many among
us still struggle with understanding exactly what’s in each and
every package on the store shelves. This is where carefully reading nutrition
labels can make a huge difference.
Before you head out to your next grocery-shopping trip, arm yourself with
these tips for reading labels:
Flip the food. The front of any sort of food package is meant to attract your attention
and nothing more. Although it may make huge health claims, a package front
is only a marketing piece. So, before you assume that what you’re
grabbing from the shelf is really healthy, flip the box, bag or can until
you find the FDA’s “Nutrition Facts” label.
Pay attention to portions. Not all portions are created equally. When you’re comparing two
products side-by-side, make sure to check the serving size on the label.
Sometimes companies will change their portion sizes to make a product
look healthier in comparison to the competition, even when it’s not.
Figuring out fats. Fats get a bad rap, but they’re actually important for a healthy
body. The trick is to eat more good fats and minimize your bad fats. Saturated
fats and trans fats are the main culprits for raising LDL cholesterol
in the blood and increasing your risk of heart disease. Fat can be a great
source of energy, especially for kids, as long as you minimize trans fats
and saturated fats. Depending on your age and gender, fat intake should
be anywhere from 20 to 40 percent of your total diet.
Counting carbs. Many fad diets preach the evils of carbohydrates, but the truth is that
these important macronutrients are vital to your day-to-day functioning.
However, not all carbohydrates are made the same. The Nutrition Facts
label on your food will tell you exactly how many carbohydrates are in
a serving, broken down into the categories “Dietary Fiber”
and “Sugar.” Too many sugars can be problematic, but fiber
is your friend. Aim for 25 to 35 grams of fiber each day and limit your
added sugars to less than 10 percent of your total intake.
Packing in protein. Proteins are building blocks that your body uses to create and repair
tissues, especially in growing kids. As we grow, we need more of them
to keep up with our increasing size, which is why toddlers might only
need around 13 grams of protein each day, but adult men need as much as
56 grams. When choosing protein-packed food, keep an eye on fat content, too.
Monitoring your Daily Value. The FDA created a tool to help you better decide what foods to put into
your shopping cart and which to leave out. On the Nutrition Facts panel,
there’s a column labeled “% Daily Value.” This column
is exactly what you’d think it would be — shorthand to help
you build a well-rounded meal. Any nutrient that’s five percent
or less of your daily value per serving can be labeled as “low;”
nutrients that are 20 percent or more are “high.” For example,
food that’s labeled “low in fat, high in fiber,” should
provide less than five percent of your daily value of fat and over twenty
percent of your daily value of fiber.
Investigate the ingredients. The best way to get to the bottom of your food’s contents is to
check out the list of ingredients. Ingredients are listed in order by
the amount that a food item contains. Whatever contributes the bulk of
the weight is listed first; the smallest contributor is listed last. Although
you should be able to recognize most of the ingredients on the ingredient
list, chemical names don’t automatically make a food unhealthy.
Many foods are fortified with additional vitamins and minerals that might
not be as easily recognized as more familiar ingredients.
Developing a habit of reading labels on food can make your grocery trip
take a little longer, but by paying close attention to what you’re
buying, you ensure that you’re also paying better attention to what
you put into your family. Healthy habits start with you, so make sure
to show your children how to read Nutrition Facts labels, too.