Paring down food Labels

  • Posted: Thursday, August 2, 2012 12:01 a.m.
    UPDATED: Thursday, August 2, 2012 12:40 p.m.

By Michelle Musselwhite, RD, LDN

As a registered dietitian, I always ask clients what they read on food labels whether seeking advice for weight management, disease management or wellness. From these responses, and almost 15 years of experience, the following have made the label reading “short list:”

The fewer ingredients in a product, the better. Goal: Five ingredients or less.

Seek “whole” grains rather than refined or “white starchy” carbohydrates: Whole grains have more disease protective phytonutrients and more fiber to help provide regularity and keep us feeling full longer than the refined grains like white bread, white rice, and white pasta. “White starchies” raise blood sugar and cause an increase in appetite. Whole grains have the word “whole” as the first word in the ingredient list. Examples: whole wheat flour, whole grain oats, whole grain or brown rice and whole grain corn. If a product lists “wheat flour” first, it is not a whole grain even if it looks brown. If “whole” is part of the second ingredient, rather than the first, it is not a whole grain.



Limit grams of sugar instead of carbohydrates: The recommended limit for added sugar is less than seven grams per serving, with a daily total of less than 40 grams. The 40 gram total per day does not include milk or fruit. An example of a beverage that could “blow the bank” is a can of regular soda at about 39 grams of sugar (AKA: Dessert). Sugar is added to many foods so check all labels for sugar. Beware that sugar can also be called honey, sucrose, glucose, high fructose corn syrup, maple syrup, or molasses.

Eliminate trans fat: It raises bad and lowers good cholesterol. Goal: Zero grams per day. The good news? Since 2006, when trans fat had to be listed on the label, it was removed from many products. Food manufacturers use a loophole that allows trans fats in products that list “0 grams of trans fat” as long as they contain less than 0.5 grams of trans fat per serving. If a “partially hydrogenated” oil (AKA: Trans fat) is listed in the ingredient list, especially near the beginning or multiple times, avoid the food.

Limit saturated fat: It raises bad cholesterol and is found in high-protein animal foods like meat, poultry and full-fat dairy foods. Use small portions of lean meats and poultry with the skin removed, and lowfat dairy such as 1% or skim milk, lowfat or 2% cheese and eliminate stick margarines/stick butter and use trans-free tub spreads instead. There are also plant sources of protein (beans, seeds, nuts) that are excellent alternatives to meats and full-fat dairy products. Raise an eyebrow if a product contains more than three-five grams of saturated fat per serving.

Limit sodium: Many clients admit they are reading labels for sodium, but don’t know why. We only need 2300 mg per day (equivalent to about 1 teaspoon salt) and can easily get this amount without ever using the salt shaker. In fact we can get enough just eating fresh, minimally processed foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains and small amounts of lowfat dairy products and fresh lean meats, poultry and fish. Adults age 51 and older, African Americans of any age, and individuals with high blood pressure, diabetes, or chronic kidney disease should further reduce their sodium intake to 1,500 mg a day.

For weight management, look at calories and serving size/servings per container: Weight gain is simply consuming more calories than are burned off. Serving size tells us the portion of food the calories on the label apply to. Don’t be fooled by a container that says 100 calories per serving and two servings per container when you would typically consume the whole container, or 200 calories.

Ignore DV% (daily values) on the label. These are the numbers followed by “%” on the label because they are always based on a 2000 or 2500 calorie plan which is much too high for an adult trying to manage weight.

The learning curve for label reading is steep but short. Invest some time to learn what is important and what to ignore – you’ll soon get the hang of it and be able to pick up the products you are looking for and quickly scan for key nutrients and ingredients.

Michelle Musselwhite, RD, LDN, is a registered dietitian at Rowan Regional Medical Center. To schedule a nutrition consult with a registered dietitian, call 704-210-5771.

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