Stand along the aisles of supermarkets just long enough to observe a habit most shoppers have: They pick up boxes, cans and packets and read the food labels. But here’s the truth: Most of those who check nutrition labels can’t really find use for them. Sure, they can read, they just can’t interpret the labels well enough to use them to make healthier food choices. A survey conducted by the International Food Information Council Foundation (IFIC) in 2003 revealed by about 83% of shoppers did look at nutritional labels. A survey from the Food Marketing Institute in 2004 showed similar results. In 2006, an Associated Press survey showed 80% of shoppers reading food labels. However, the same survey found that 44% of these shoppers still bought less healthy foods.
These days, eating smart isn’t a choice – it is a necessity. But with so many new vocabulary and mind-boggling figures and percentages, a healthy diet can be downright tedious. The truth is that you do not need to be a dietician or have a medical degree to know exactly what’s in your food and how much nutrients you are getting from it. Crack the code to a more wholesome nutrition for you and your family:
Step one: Know Your Label Lingo
Still don’t understand what calories, carbohydrates and cholesterol are? Here’s a primer on the terms you are most likely to find on the labels of your foods:
• Daily Value
The government has set standards to help you determine the healthy amount of a particular substance you can eat on a daily basis. Less than 5% of a nutrient is considered low, and 20% or more may already be too much.
This is the unit used to measure the energy found in food. If calories are not burned into energy, they get converted and are stored into fats.
• Total Fat
A gram of fat has about 9 calories. In general, the fats you consume in a day must not exceed 30% of the total calories, especially if these are bad fats. (2,400 calories is equivalent to about 80 grams or less). Fish, avocado, and nuts, however, are good fats, and are an exception.
• Saturated Fat
Rule of thumb: These types of fats must be eaten in moderation, if not scarcity. 20 grams or less should be your limit in a day. Saturated fats are usually animal fats found in milk, cream or butter.
Cholesterol is a fat that naturally exists in the blood, and is usually found in animal food products. It is waxy in nature, and cannot be dissolved by the body. There are two types of cholesterol: the bad kind, or LDL (low density lipoprotein) cholesterol, which is responsible for artery plaques and heart diseases; and the good cholesterol or HDL (high density lipoprotein) which seems to counteract the effects of LDL and protect the heart and blood vessels.
• Total Carbohydrates
This refers to the total amount of starches or refined sugars that the body can use for “fuel”.
• Dietary Fiber
Dietary fiber is naturally found in healthy carbohydrate sources like vegetables and fruits, oats, whole grains, brain and whole wheat. Dietary fiber is a crucial part of the diet as it counteracts bad cholesterol. 25 grams of good dietary fiber everyday is essential.
Proteins are organic compounds formed by amino acids and are needed for muscles and bones. There are about 4 calories of protein per gram of protein. The body requires approximately 0.8 grams of protein for every 2.2 pounds of body weight. For instance, if you weigh 130 pounds, you will need 47 grams of protein, about the amount you would get from a 6-ounce slice of salmon.
The body needs about a 1 teaspoon of sodium a day, so intake must be 2,300 milligrams or less. Sodium is an essential mineral that is found in salt. Too much can cause water retention.
Step two: Be curious about claims.
In addition to these staple terms, most food packets also have nutrition claims that make them seem healthier than their counterparts. Claims must meet food standards set by the government before being printed on packages. Make sure these claims aren’t just marketing hype:
• Low fat
Check back on the fat content label to make sure that the food doesn’t exceed 3 grams of fat.
• Source of Fiber
If it truly is a good source of dietary fiber, it means the amount of food contains at least 2 grams of fiber. “High-fiber” means that the food contains 4 grams, and “very high source of fiber” is only true if the same amount of food contains at least 6 grams.
• Cholesterol – free
Technically, it’s not totally cholesterol – free, but when it says so in the packet, it really means the cholesterol amount is less than 2mg in the amount of food on the Nutrition Facts table. In addition, it should also be low in trans- fat and saturated fat.
• Reduced Calories
When it says “Reduced Calories”, it means it has twenty five percent Calories (unit for energy) less than its counterpart or its regular version.
• Sodium – Free
This doesn’t mean that sodium is totally absent – what it means is that the amount of food in the nutrition facts table is not more than 5mg of sodium.
Light could mean a lot of things – it could be light because it contains less fat or perhaps less calories. It could also be light in color, or lighter – tasting (less sweet or less salty).
Skinny Mom Fact: Foods that are labeled “USDA organic” are required to have at least 95% organic ingredients.