Insights & Actions for Healthy Living

I have been reading labels more, what should I be looking for?

I am so pleased that you are trying to make the most of your food selections by reading labels.

Happily, more and more of us are trying to be good food consumers and taking charge of our health. As a dietitian, I have always read the food label and as the years have passed am thrilled that more and more information is appearing there. Sometimes that information can be confusing. Unfortunately what we see on the package is not as it appears, is still not fully regulated and can give mixed messages.

Even though many of us are influenced greatly by price in order to stretch our food budgets, we are thinking about health and taste too.

Tips for Label Reading

  • Read the nutrition facts label. Be aware of the serving size and how much of the product you typically eat when comparing foods. A new food label is coming soon that should be clearer for us to read and give information about portion sizes that most people eat (maybe shouldn’t but really do).
  • Check the nutritional content of the food using the nutrition fact label. Does it give you essential nutrients near 20 % Daily Value? A 5% Daily Value or less is considered low or not a good source of that nutrient.
  • If you have a specific health concern such as high blood pressure or heart disease, check the label for sodium content and fats. Sodium per meal target should be around 500 mg. Avoid any Trans fat and limit saturated fats (goal 16 grams/day) in favor of poly-and mono-unsaturated fats.
  • Look at the ingredients too. They tell a story about the food including how processed it is. The fewer ingredients the better. If you see partially hydrogenated oil in the ingredients it contains some, less than 0.5 mg but will add up if you consume more than one serving. The largest ingredient is listed first. This is a good way to compare foods since you can see the additives, preservatives and unpronounceable foods that have been added which you might want to avoid.
  • Front of the package labeling has been booming recently with more and more labels sporting different marks. You will find Heart-Check marks that means a food is certified by the Heart Association to meet six standards such as fat content, cholesterol of 20 mg or less, sodium content and amount of beneficial nutrients. There is also the front of package information which lists nutritional content in one serving according to the fact label. It puts it on the front to make it easier to compare foods on the shelf. You will also see Guiding Stars on some foods which is designed to rank foods, the more stars – the higher nutritional content.
  • Beware of nutritional claims on the label such as natural. The Food and Drug Administration regulate claims on food labels but not everything that is used is restricted at this point. The FDA does not define the word natural on a label. Multigrain does not always mean 100% whole grain either and coloring could have been added to make it appear whole. Look closely at no sugar added claims because they could have added carbohydrate in other forms such as maltodextrin. If you look for lower calorie alternatives and select light you could be fooled. Some companies use that term to refer to flavor or color and not calories.

We are not alone when we read the food labels with a confused expression. According to a recent Nielsen survey, almost 59% of consumers have difficulty understanding the food label. Learning more about what we see will help us keep ourselves and our families on the road to health!

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