Grocery store tips: Decoding nutrition labels

August 07, 2023 | by NorthShore – Edward-Elmhurst Health
Categories: Healthy Driven Life

Grocery shopping these days is no easy task, especially when you are faced with a decision in every aisle. The cereal aisle alone is packed with dozens of choices.

Complicating your shopping experience even further, each package is plastered with claims like “whole grain,” “low fat” and “sugar free!”

Have you looked closely at that nutrition information box on your items? It’s time to get familiar with it, as that box is your best ally in healthy eating.

The Nutrition Labeling and Education Act of 1990 requires all packaged food to include nutrition information on the label.

“The labels can help you make healthier choices and be mindful of what is in the food you eat. But it’s also important to read the label with a critical eye,” said Peggy Balboa, RDN, LDN at Northwest Community Hospital. “Analyze the serving size and servings per package, as well as the sodium and calorie contents. You might have to do some quick calculations to get a true picture of the nutritional value of an item.”

Pay close attention to these five components of the nutrition information box:

  1. Serving size and servings per container: Take note of this, as many packaged foods have more than one serving in what may appear to be a single-serving package. It is important to measure out the portion so you know exactly how much you’re getting— many people under estimate the amount they eat!
  2. Calories per serving: Make sure to keep the number of servings per package in mind when calculating calories. Stay within an appropriate amount of calories per day, and realize that high calorie foods may be tough to fit into your calorie “budget.”
  3. Total fat: Keeping an eye on the total fat is important since fats have the most calories per gram, but it’s the type that matters! The American Heart Association recommends limiting saturated fat intake to no more than 10 percent of your daily calories (20-22 grams per day based on a 2,000 calorie diet), keeping trans fat as low as possible, and consuming less than 2,300 mg of sodium each day. Unsaturated fats have been shown to have healthful benefits, so make this type your fat of choice (found in avocados, olive oil, nuts/seeds, and salmon to name a few). Keep the serving size in mind on this one, too. A product may appear to be lower in fat, but not after taking the serving size into account.
  4. Sugar: Many foods contain natural sugars (dairy products and fruit, for example). But some foods contain high levels of added sugars. Shoot for less than 9 grams per serving, and less than 10 percent of your total calories daily from added sugars (no more than 50 grams per day based on a 2,000 calorie diet).
  5. Added Sugar: Added sugars include sugars that are added during the processing of foods (such as sucrose or dextrose), foods packaged as sweeteners (such as table sugar), sugars from syrups and honey, and sugars from concentrated fruit or vegetable juices. They do not include naturally occurring sugars that are found in milk, fruits, and vegetables. The Daily Value for added sugars is 50 grams per day based on a 2,000 calorie daily diet.
  6. Dietary fiber: Look for products with at least 3-5 grams of fiber per serving. Fiber has been shown to increase satiety and manage blood sugar levels, as well as help improve cholesterol levels.

Beyond the nutrition information, the other claims printed on food packaging can be somewhat mysterious (until you know your stuff):

  • Whole grain. How do you know if a food contains whole grains? Sometimes it takes a little digging. Packages marked “Multi-grain,” “stone-ground,” “100 percent wheat” or “bran” may not contain whole grains. Check the product’s ingredient list – the first ingredient should have the word “whole,” “oats” or “oatmeal” in it. Incorporate a variety of whole grains into your diet, such as quinoa, barley, spelt, whole wheat couscous, polenta, oats and farro.
  • Organic. This term refers to a product that is not genetically modified or grown with unapproved pesticides or sewage sludge. There are varying levels of organic products — this USDA fact sheet lays out the details. If you see the USDA’s “100 percent organic” seal on a label, it means it’s completely free of any added ingredients. "It’s important to know that organic is not synonymous with healthy,” Balboa said. “So don’t be fooled into thinking organic cookies are healthy just because they are labeled organic.”
  • Gluten free. Gluten is a protein that is naturally found in wheat, rye and barley. For a product to be labeled gluten-free, it must have less than 20 ppm of gluten, according to the FDA. The gluten free label is extremely helpful for people with celiac disease (about 1 percent of the population). Others may be sensitive to gluten or allergic to it. If you have no gluten sensitivity, going gluten free isn’t necessarily a healthy choice, and don’t be deceived into thinking a product is healthy because it claims to be gluten free.
  • Low fat/Fat free. The American Cancer Society has a great web page that details the differences between terms such as free, low, reduced, light and others. In general, “fat free” means there is less than half a gram of fat per serving. As the ACS points out, it’s important to look at calorie counts and other nutrition information. The “fat free” term doesn’t necessarily mean you can eat a ton of it without gaining weight; usually fat-free products contain more sugar, so always look at each nutrient.

Talk to your doctor or dietitian before starting a new meal plan. They can give you the support and tools you need to make smart food choices. Get more healthy recipes.

Need a doctor? Find the right one for you at Edward-Elmhurst Health.

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