What’s Most Important When Reading A Food Label?

By August 12, 2023 Nutrition Column
The Grocery Guide is a series of posts dedicated to helping you make smart choices at the supermarket so you and your family stay healthy.
You know reading the label is important. But what exactly should you look at? Is 150 calories too much? How much fiber should it have? What the heck is a partially hydrogenated oil and why should you avoid it?
Start with the Serving size. Each serving size contains the amount of nutrients listed on the nutrition facts panel. If you are eating double the serving size, than double each nutrient amount.
Maximize fiber and protein. High fiber diets reduce cholesterol, ease bowel movements and increase satiety which makes you less likely to overeat. Look for products that have at least 4g of fiber or more. Both fiber and protein help regulate blood sugar levels, preventing drastic spikes and drops in blood sugar which cause irritability and mood swings. Chronic poor glucose control can lead to weight gain, diabetes, and heart disease. Fiber is your friend.
Minimize sodium and sugar. The majority of sodium intake is from processed foods so purchase low sodium versions of canned, frozen and prepackaged food items. Products with 140 milligrams or less per serving are considered low sodium. Here are some other common (regulated) claims seen on food packages:
  • Low calorie: 40 calories or less per serving
  • Low cholesterol: 20 milligrams or less and 2 grams or less of saturated fat per serving
  • Reduced: At least 25 percent less of the specified nutrient or calories than the usual product
  • Good source of: Provides at least 10 to 19 percent of the Daily Value of a particular vitamin or nutrient per serving
  • Calorie free: Less than five calories per serving
  • Fat free/sugar free: Less than ½ gram of fat or sugar per serving
  • Low sodium: 140 milligrams or less of sodium per serving
  • High in: Provides 20 percent or more of the Daily Value of a specified nutrient per serving
(source: FDA)
Sugar - in many different forms - is added to tons of food products so be sure to check your label. Some yogurts pack more sugar than a Twinkie! The most important food products to consider buying low in sugar are those that you buy often. If cereal or yogurt is a daily food item for you, then choose a cereal with less than 5g of sugar or yogurt with less than 20g. Milk and plain yogurts typically have 10-12g of naturally occurring sugar (lactose) but nutrition labels don’t specify this. So if you’re yogurt has 23g of sugar and 12g is naturally occurring, the remaining 11g is added sugar. The American Heart Association recommends that women consume no more than 25g (6 teaspoons) of sugar per day and men no more than 35g (9 teaspoons).
Some yogurts pack more sugar than a Twinkie!

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But not Siggis. They’re well known for their “more protein than sugar” line. A good and healthy one at that. And no, I have no financial ties to Siggis; just a big fan of their yogurt.
Eliminate trans fats. Even a little bit of saturated fat is good for you. But there’s nothing good about trans fats. They increase your LDL (bad) cholesterol and lower your HDL (good) cholesterol, which increases your risk for heart attack and stroke. Trans fats are typically used in processed foods to make them more shelf stable. Enter the “partially hydrogenated oil”. Avoid it at all costs. Hydrogenation is a process that adds hydrogen to liquid oils, which turns them into solid oils, allowing for the utmost manipulation of food products to have the exact consistency, texture or mouthfeel we want them to have. Genius for food scientists and beneficial for food companies (hello profit!); but unfortunately, the consumer is left only with the instant gratification of flavor and mouthfeel, and a heightened risk of coronary heart disease.
So where is this stuff found?
coffee creamer, non-dairy creamer
prepackaged baked goods - cookies, doughnuts, muffins, pastries, crackers, etc.
Nutella - I know, I’m sorry. It destroys my soul too.
Pie crust, refrigerated doughs and biscuits
This list is not exhaustive; be sure to check your labels for trans fats (found under Total Fat).
Polyunsaturated and Monounsaturated fats are healthy fats that can also be found under the total fat category however, it is not required that they be listed. If you see them listed, they’re good. And hopefully they make up most of the Total Fat content.
Ingredients. As Michael Pollan puts it: if you can’t say it, don’t eat it. Healthy eating means consuming foods that are closest to their natural state, which automatically eliminates highly processed foods that contain large amounts of unreadable ingredients. Sure, a doughnut, a frozen meal, or a heck a Twinkie once in a while won’t kill you. It’s the frequent, daily consumption of these products that will.
Minimize your sugar, sodium, saturated and trans fat intake.
Maximize your fiber and protein.
Be cognizant of the label on foods you buy the most.
Stay tuned for next weeks Grocery Guide post: The true meaning of package claims like Cage Free, Organic, Grass Fed, Free Range and more.

Questions? Don’t be afraid to ask me! Email me at ashley dot galloway dot dietitian at gmail.com, or share your question with others by commenting on the blog post or one of my social media accounts:
Twitter: @TheFreshBeet
Instagram: @thefreshbeet
Facebook Page: The Fresh Beet

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