Friday, February 2, 2018

Learning how to read a food label can help you make good nutritional choices

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is responsible for assuring that foods sold in the United States are safe, wholesome, and properly labeled. This applies to foods produced domestically, as well as foods imported from foreign countries. The Nutrition Labeling and Education Act (NLEA), which amended the FD&C Act requires most foods to bear nutrition labeling and requires food labels that they are nutrient content claims and certain help messages to comply with specific requirements. It is the responsibility for the food industry to remain current with the legal requirements for food labeling.

The Nutrition Facts panel on any packaged item is the best way to understand exactly what is in the product you are buying.  The front of the package can be very misleading and tells you only what the manufacturer wants you to know about the health claims.  Terms used on packaging, such as “multigrain”, “reduced-fat”, “no additives” and even “natural” can be misleading, as these terms aren’t tightly regulated so manufacturers will use words that make you think you are buying healthy products. Knowing how to read the Nutrition Facts Panel will guide you to better choices for a healthy lifestyle. 

When deciding what is best to buy, compare nutrients and calories in one food to those in another. The information may surprise you. For your heart health, make sure you aren’t eating foods high in carbohydrates, saturated and trans fats, and sodium.

These steps may help simplify what can be a confusing Nutrition Fact label.

  1. Check Serving Size and Servings Per Container
This will tell you what is a standardized serving for this product and the nutritional information listed below relates only to this size serving.  It can surprise you to find out that a small package that seems like one serving can be labeled as two servings.  This would mean if you ate the entire container, you would have to double the calories, carbohydrates, fat, sodium and everything else on that label to get an accurate measurement of you are eating. 

  1. Carbohydrates count more than calories!

The Total Carbohydrates listed on the label will include sugar, starch, and fiber – all various forms of carbohydrates.  This number can be even more important than the calories, as limiting the carbohydrates you take in will naturally also limit the amount of calories, especially those ‘empty calories’ in the form of sugar and high fructose corn syrup that is commonly added when fat is removed.  For instance, you will be surprised to see that regular plain Greek yogurt will have approximately 8 carbohydrates per serving, while ‘low fat’ plain Greek yogurt will have approximately 12 carbohydrates! What?!?  Manufacturers know that when you take the fat out of a product, it doesn’t taste as good therefore ‘fat-free’ high calorie sugar is added to make it taste better! Even worse, when ‘fruit’ is added, it is generally a sugar-based fruit and the carbohydrate count jumps to 25+grams per serving!  Best to get regular plain yogurt, cottage cheese, etc. and add your own fresh or frozen berries or fruit.

Higher carbohydrate foods that should be limited include most white bread, pasta, rice, and potatoes.  Even the higher fiber breads and pastas, brown rice and sweet potatoes are only slightly better than the white form due to the additional fiber they contain.  They still have a higher amount of carbohydrates that should be limited daily.  The higher the fiber count, the better it is to eat.  Carbohydrates in food are digested and converted into glucose, or sugar, to provide the cells of the body with energy. Excess carbohydrates in your body can lead to weight gain and diabetes.

Mot fruits and vegetables are generally low in carbohydrates, with the exception of apples and bananas.  You would be astonished to know that one medium apple or one medium banana has approximately 25 grams of carbohydrates!  Best to eat fresh melons, berries, peaches, oranges, and pears, etc. and watch the canned fruit as there can be added syrups and juices that add sugary carbohydrates.  Limit the starchy vegetables like peas and corn (read the labels) but don’t hesitate to eat most other vegetables freely.  Did you know that one orange has only 8 grams carbohydrates, yet that small 4 oz. glass of orange juice has nearly 25 grams? Avoid most juices in general as they generally have significant amounts of added sugar (aka carbohydrates).  If you want juice, it would be best to use just a splash for flavor into a glass of water.

In general, when looking at the label and the carbohydrate content, if it has more than 20-30 grams of carbohydrates per serving, then use it in very limited quantities.  Moderation is always best.  As a guideline, keeping your total daily carbohydrate ‘count’ under 100 grams per day will result in controlling the amount of ‘empty’ sugar calories you take in.  Counting your daily carbohydrate intake is much easier than counting thousands of calories, and as long as you choose a variety of colorful fruits and vegetables to eat with your meals and snacks, you will get a well rounded and balanced intake of nutrients.

For those who wish to count the carbohydrates most effectively, you are able to reduce the number of carbs counted by whatever fiber count is shown on the label.  For instance, a label showing 10 grams carbohydrates that also has 3 grams fiber, you need to count only 7 carbs per serving (10-3=7).  Fiber is the only carbohydrate that is not changed by the body to sugar and is eliminated without affecting insulin levels.  Technically, fiber is considered a carbohydrate even though it is not digested and it provides no calories.  Fiber is important for heart health, and getting at least 25 grams of fiber daily is recommended. Most people, however, need a fiber supplement to get these recommended levels. 

  1. Look for Saturated and Trans fats

Look for products with the lowest amounts of saturated and trans fats per serving.   For the past years, consumers have been told ‘low fat’ was best and with the added carbohydrates in place of the fat in most products, people have been eating more sugar, more refined carbs and processed foods instead, which has made the world sicker and fatter. 

When reading labels, the amount of Total Fat, Saturated Fat, and Trans Fat is listed, as the law requires it.  No amount of trans fat in the diet is beneficial. Therefore, when a food label indicates "0 grams of trans fat," that's ideal. However, even then a product may still have some trans fat. Manufacturers are allowed to list "0 grams" of trans fat if the product has less than 0.5 grams of trans fat per serving. Some examples are tub margarines or peanut butter. Usually this isn't a problem if you eat one or two servings a day. However, if you were to eat many servings, this amount of trans fat may add up. 

In general, go for the ‘good’ fats, like olive and coconut oil, and don’t hesitate to use higher fat, yet healthy and nutritious foods on occasion, such as avocados, cheese, eggs, nuts, chia seeds and yogurt.  Again, moderation is key to healthy living.

  1. Watch your Sodium intake

Sodium (salt) regulates your body’s water levels, which is especially important for those with heart disease and high blood pressure.  Sodium is listed on the label in milligrams. When 1500 milligrams is the general limit for people with heart disease, sodium can add up quickly. That’s equal to little more than ½ teaspoon of salt!  A low-sodium food is defined by the Food and Drug Administration as 140 milligrams or less per serving.  This can be a helpful when deciding if and how a certain product can fit into your healthy eating plan. Most canned foods and highly processed food are high in sodium so best to buy frozen and or fresh produce and unprocessed or low-sodium meats.

5.    Review the Ingredient List

All food products have the ingredients list by weight in decreasing order.  This means the first items listed are the primary ingredients with the remainder of the list showing what is less within.  This can be very helpful in determining more information about the food product. 
  --If there are more preservatives and fillers than identifiable ingredients, this food is likely highly processed and therefore NOT healthy. 
  --If the list contains ‘partially hydrogenated oil’ then it still has trans fat despite a label that may say “0 grams” of trans fat.
  --If sugar or high-fructose corn syrup is listed before the healthy ingredients then likely the calories and carbohydrates are from sugar and low in other nutrients.  Other names for sugar include sucrose, fructose, glucose, maltose, dextrose, high-fructose corn syrup, corn syrup, concentrated fruit juice, honey and maple syrup.

What do I do if there is no Nutrition Facts label?

There are many fresh fruits, vegetables, and other grocery items that do not always come with nutritional labels.  A highly recommended online site that will give you nutritional breakdown of all foods is located at  If you do not use a computer, then seeking a good nutrition book at your local library or bookstore will help you understand which foods are the healthy choices.  As with most lifestyle changes, the more you read and understand the nutritional value of healthy foods, the easier it will become.