Clearing Up Food Label Confusion

By Elana Zimelman, RD, LD, CDE, Registered Dietitian

Do you often have trouble planning for healthy meals or picking the healthiest dinner options? Coming up with meals for a week can be overwhelming, and this feeling usually strikes when we hit the grocery store aisles. It’s time to cease the confusion and conquer your next grocery store visit. Get your plate in shape, is fitting for those striving to begin or maintain a healthy diet. In order to create a healthy plate at home, you must start at the grocery store.

One of the most important steps when planning healthy meals at the grocery store starts with food labels. Reading the label is one thing; deciphering it is something entirely different. With the right knowledge, food labels are a great way to guide you to healthy food choices.

Don’t Ignore Serving Size

When looking at the food label, start at the top of the panel and make your way down. First, check out the serving size. If you are trying to manage your weight, it is especially important to look at this number. It tells you how much of the product is in a “normal” serving. After reading the serving size, keep things simple by noting the items that pertain to your specific health.

If you are trying to lose weight, look at total calories that fit within your calorie plan. Generally a healthy snack would be 200 calories or less.
If you have diabetes, meet with a registered dietitian for a personalized carbohydrate plan and make sure to check carbohydrates per serving.
If you have high blood pressure, select snacks or side dishes with less than 300 mg of sodium per serving. Choose entrees with less than 800 mg of sodium per serving.
If you have high cholesterol, focus on the saturated fat content. For example, select a cheese that has 2-3 grams or less of saturated fat per serving.

Daily Value – What Does it Mean?

The percent Daily Value (DV) listed to the right of each of the nutrients can be confusing. These percentages are based on a 2,000 calorie diet. Even if you don’t consume 2,000 calories per day, the “percent DV” gives you an approximate idea of how the different nutrients contribute to your diet. To simplify the process, follow the 5% and 20% rule. This means you should shoot for 5% or less of the unhealthy components of the food, like fat, saturated fat and sodium, and 20% or greater for the healthier nutrients like fiber and vitamins or minerals.

Compare and Contrast

It’s a great idea to compare different brands of the same food item when shopping. For example, if you’re looking at two whole wheat breads, make sure your choice is labeled 100% whole wheat and has at least 3 grams of fiber. If you are choosing a lean beef make sure the saturated fat is 4 grams or less.

Know the Ingredients

Don’t forget to check the ingredients. The ingredient list is important because it shows exactly what’s in your food. Ingredients are listed in order of greatest amounts to least amounts, according to their weight. A good rule of thumb is the fewer the ingredients, the better. Some healthy ingredients to look for include whole grain, nonfat milk and liquid oil like canola oil. Watch out for sugar, salt and partially hydrogenated oil as they aren’t the healthiest options.

Misleading Marketing

Beware of marketing labels. The FDA sets specific requirements for manufacturers when they make certain nutrient claims on the label. Here’s an easy guide to define what some of these terms mean:

“Healthy” means low in fat, lower in cholesterol and sodium.
“Low fat” means no more than 3 grams of fat per serving.
“Light” is 50% less fat or one third fewer calories than the original version of the food.
“Free” (as in “fat free”) means that the food contains insignificant amounts of fat.

Next time you go to the grocery store, take a few moments to check out the food labels. Once you’re equipped with the knowledge, it’s easy to plan a healthier plate and soon you’ll be spending less time at the grocery store. Invest the added time because shaping up your plate starts here!