Food labels contain a lot of useful information, but it can be difficult to make sense of it all. Fortunately, you can eat healthy without having to learn a lot of complicated scientific equations or mathematical calculations.
This is a simple guide to clearing up the most common sources of confusion about food labels and mastering easy choices for better eating.
Common Sources of Confusion
1. Regard all sugars equally. Manufacturers sometimes use many different names for sweeteners, knowing that consumers may be trying to avoid sugar. You’re still getting a lot of empty calories if a food is high in molasses, honey, or high-fructose corn syrup.
2. Pay careful attention to serving sizes. Portions are another tricky area. You may expect to get 4 servings out of a small ice cream container, but the label is actually based on half that much. Ensure you know how many calories you’re really eating!
3. Calculate the true value of organic food. Organic food is usually more expensive, but there’s no guarantee that it is nutritionally superior. However, you may still want to buy it if you’re concerned about avoiding pesticides.
4. Be vigilant about trans fats. The “trans” fats found in many processed foods have been associated with heart disease and other health issues. A product may contain these fats even if the label says “0 grams.” That’s because the FDA allows this as long as the amount is below 1 gram. Your best protection is to eat mostly whole, natural foods.
5. Hold out for 100% whole wheat. Phrases like “100% wheat” or “stoneground” sound promising but may actually be the refined grains you want to eliminate. Always check the label to ensure that whole wheat or some whole grain is listed as the first ingredient.
Master the Easiest Choices
1. Load up on vegetables and fruits. Getting most of your calories from fresh produce is the simplest way to eat healthy, and you can mostly forget about reading labels. Keep in mind that frozen and canned varieties are comparable in nutritional value.
2. Eat more fish. Most experts agree that the benefits of eating at least two servings of fish a week outweigh any concerns about mercury. When buying canned tuna, choose “light” rather than “white” products. They’re likely to be lower in mercury and usually cost less.
3. Choose the leanest cuts of meat. Look for packages that include the words “round” or “loin.” Meat that is labeled “extra lean” typically has half the fat of meat that is labeled “lean.”
4. Drink skim milk. Low-fat and no-fat dairy products deliver as much protein and calcium as their whole-fat counterparts, but have little or no saturated fats. Most people over the age of 2 are better off drinking skim milk.
5. Buy plain yogurt. Yogurt is a power food that most people can eat even if they are lactose intolerant. Adding your own flavors to plain yogurt lets you avoid added sugars. Try stirring in fresh fruit, granola, or cinnamon.
6. Include healthy fats in your diet. While it’s best to limit saturated fats and avoid “trans” fats completely, there are other fats that are good for you. Go ahead and indulge in sensible servings of extra virgin olive oil.
Diet plays a big role in the quality of our life and our overall well-being. Learn to read food labels like a pro and make healthier choices for you and your family.