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Required Reading: Food Labels

By Staff in Food on Nov 11, 2009 5:40PM

2009_11_USDA_Label.gif Most of us have little time, or desire, to scrutinize food labels. Not to mention doing so can perplex even the most astute shopper. But the ability to quickly interpret a food label, and weed out key information, is requisite to healthy eating. So leave your calculator at home, enter your grocery store armed with patience and a satisfied belly, and consider these key points to efficient label reading.

  • Serving Size: The first, and perhaps most critical, number. You must know if you’re talking about 3 cookies, 2 slices of pizza, and so on. A typical bag of Frito Lay Sun Chips contains twelve servings at 140 calories each! Many snack-size bags of potato chips actually contain two servings and thus you must double the fat and calories on the label.
  • Calories: We’ve seen snack-size “energy” bars on the market that contain over 400 calories. A snack food that provides more than 200 calories is excessive and no longer just a “snack”. For a point of reference, a typical meal should provide around 500 calories.
  • Fat: Check out the total, then separate good from bad. Monos and Polys are the two unsaturated, heart-healthy fats. But saturated and trans fats promote cardiovascular disease. In general, you want 5 grams or less per serving of saturated fat and ZERO grams trans fat. The American Heart Association recommends less than 1% of your calories come from trans fat because they are believed to be the most deleterious to your health.

More after the jump.

  • Cholesterol: No need for specifics here, just remember less is best and keep your daily intake of cholesterol around 300mg or less. Contrary to popular thinking, the cholesterol we consume from food is not the main cause of high cholesterol in our body. Saturated fat intake is the main culprit, as our liver’s make cholesterol from saturated fat.
  • Sodium: Sodium is a necessary for life, however, when consumed in excess, may cause high blood pressure. Some of us are more “salt sensitive” than others, but a healthy goal is to consume 2000mg per day or less of sodium. When scanning the food label, choose foods that contain 500mg or less. Be aware that many foods, such as canned soups and deli meats, by far exceed that recommendation. Salt is a cheap, and thus abundantly used, flavor enhancer.
  • Carbohydrate: Don’t fret over carbs! Instead, focus on fiber. A food that provides 5 grams of fiber per serving is an excellent choice, but even as little as 3 grams fiber per serving is pretty decent. You want to achieve a daily fiber intake of 25-30 grams per day. Fiber has a zillion health benefits and discourages overeating by making you feel full longer.
  • Ingredients: Less is more. Healthier, minimally processed foods typically contain the fewest ingredients. When in doubt, make sure the first five ingredients are wholesome. Food manufacturers are required to list ingredients in order based on greatest weight by volume. Avoid ingredients like fats, sugars, high fructose corn syrup, sugar or partially hydrogenated oils anywhere NEAR the top of the list.

— Megan Tempest