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Ask Elesha | Just the Facts

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How to Read a Label and Get the Most Information

It can be daunting … trying to navigate through the supermarket with the best intentions of choosing the healthiest items. Some companies can be pros at advertising misleading information on the front of packages to lure people into picking up their brands. Often we are in a hurry, or just don’t want to take the time to look beyond the front of the box. This is essential if you really want to learn about accurately selecting the right healthy foods. Whether you’re watching your weight, trying to lower cholesterol or blood pressure, want to control blood sugar or simply want to eat better, it’s important to look at the nutrition facts panel and the ingredient list on all boxed, bottled and canned products.

The Food and Drug Administration requires manufacturers to list a nutrition facts panel and ingredient list on the back of all packaged foods. The law requires the following nutritional information: total calories, total fat, saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol, sodium, carbohydrates, fiber, sugar, protein, vitamins A and C, calcium and iron.

The first fact listed is total calories per serving. A lot of products will advertise a certain number of calories on the front of labels. Be sure you look at the serving size and servings per container, because serving size is often significantly smaller than you may realize. For example, a 20 ounce bottle of fruit juice is broken down into about 2.5 servings of eight ounces each, at approximately 140 calories per serving. So that seemingly healthy bottle of 100 percent fruit juice will set you back at least 350 calories, personally not where I would want to waste my calories. Notice for potato chips or crackers, the serving is usually a handful or two. It’s easy to mindlessly consume half the bag, causing calories to creep up to over 400 or so. Pay close attention to serving size, portion out and put away the rest.

The next, often most important nutrient for many is fat content. Labels must list total fat and the breakdown of different types of fat into saturated, polyunsaturated and monounsaturated. Because our bodies require fat for several functions, it’s important to include a little with every meal and snack. Saturated fat is what you need to limit, especially if you’re watching your cholesterol. Look for foods that contain less than three grams of saturated fat per serving. You should consume no more than 20 grams of saturated fat per day to keep lipid levels in check. Trans fat is detrimental to cholesterol and to health in general. It’s wise to avoid all products that contain even a small amount of trans fat. Trans fat is usually listed in the ingredients as hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oils. The healthier fats are the unsaturated, monounsaturated being the best choice, followed by polyunsaturated. A diet rich in monounsaturated fat will help lower bad cholesterol.

Monounsaturated fats include olive and canola oils; avocado, nuts and seeds; and nut butters. Some polyunsaturated fats include vegetable oils and oils derived from nuts like peanut or sesame, light mayonnaise and salad dressings, and margarine. Keep in mind: If you’re watching your waistline, all fats contain more calories (even the good ones) than protein and carbohydrates. Limit fat to one or two servings per meal, with emphasis on the unsaturated sources.

Stay tuned next month when we continue discussing the listings on food labels, including sodium, cholesterol, fiber, protein and vitamins. Plus, we’ll look at claims made by manufacturers that can be confusing to consumers.

– ELESHA KELLEHER