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Understanding nutrition labels and claims for a healthier you

Last month we began discussing how to interpret the nutrition facts panel on food labels, as well as how to decipher claims made by manufacturers. Advertising can be misleading, so it’s critical to look beyond the front of the box. Understanding labels is important, especially if you have particular health problems. Previously we discussed fat and calories and now we will take a look at how to read sodium, cholesterol, fiber, carbohydrate, and sugar content of foods.

In 2011, the U.S. Department of Agriculture revised its recommendations on sodium guidelines. Healthy people should stay below 2300 milligrams or a teaspoonof sodium per day.People with high blood pressure, and other risk groups, should limit to 1800 milligrams per day. The majority of our salt intake does not come from the shaker, but rather it is hidden in many foods that are not always as obvious. Did you know that graham crackers can have more sodium than some potato chips? As a rule of thumb, limit snack foods to 250 milligrams of sodium per serving. Frozen dinners should not exceed 600 milligrams. Limiting processed foods is always advisable to limit sodium.

Many labels tout “cholesterol free” on the front of the box as a selling point. Any food that is not derived from an animal source is naturally cholesterol free. All foods that come from animals (meats, dairy products, eggs, seafood) contain cholesterol. However, if you’re trying to lower cholesterol levels, saturated fat has a much bigger impact on cholesterol levels than the actual cholesterol found in food. “Cholesterol free” is usually just a selling tool.

Dietary fiber contentin packaged foods can be confusing if you don’t know what to look for. Several foods advertize “made with whole grain” on the front of the box. This usually means the product is made primarily from white flour with a small amount of grains added to the mix. This allows the company to say it’s made with whole grain, which is usually appealing to consumers looking to eat healthier. Think of all of the sugary kids cereals that boldly put these claims on their labels.  The only foods that are a good source of fiber list whole wheat or whole grain—not enriched flour—as one of the first ingredients. And, dietary fiber on the nutrition panel should be at least three grams per serving.

Fiber is typically listed under the “total carbohydrate” heading. If blood sugar control is a concern, grams of fiber per serving can be subtracted from total carbohydrate count to determine the carbohydrate impact on blood sugar, especially for diabetics. For example,Triscuits contain three grams of fiber per serving, with a total of 20 grams of carbohydrate per serving, so 17 grams of carbohydrate will impact blood sugar levels.This number can be referred to as “net carbohydrates”on a label. Fiber in complex carbohydrates take longer to digest than simple, white flour based starches, helping to stabilize blood sugar.

Sugar is also listed under “total carbohydrates.”As a very general rule of thumb, look for less than 10 grams of sugar per serving. More importantly, look for as little added sugars as possible in any food. Some examples of sugar on ingredient lists are: as high fructose corn syrup, honey, molasses, caramel, cane sugar, and corn syrup. Some foods naturally contain sugar. For example, plain yogurt usually has about eight grams of sugar per container, but if you look at the ingredients, no sugar is actually added. Limit your sugar intake for overall better health.

Whatever health concerns you may have—lowering cholesterol, reducing sodium intake to control high blood pressure, manage blood sugar, or to simply eat better—it’s important to know what’s in the food you eat.  Learning how to read and understand food labels will help you make healthier choices.

-ELESHA KELLEHER