Food Labels: Can You Tell Fact From Fiction?

1. When shopping for cereal and you see lots of boxes with phrases that sound healthy look for the words

1. When shopping for cereal and you see lots of boxes with phrases that sound healthy look for the words “whole grain.”

“Whole” is the magic word for a good food,” says childcare expert Bill Sears, M.D. “Even better is 100% whole wheat.” When a label says “made with,” that means the manufacturer may have started out with a particular ingredient but there’s no way to tell how it was processed or even how much of it went into the final product. And although “natural” sounds healthy, it really doesn’t mean anything in terms of nutrition. For example, the fat on bacon is natural, but it’s certainly not good for your heart.

2. Ingredients are listed in order of descending weight.

Paying attention to the small print — most importantly, the ingredients list — can help you make healthier choices. The ingredients in the largest amounts are listed first. So if you spot sugar higher up than other ingredients in a particular food, chances are it isn’t nutritious. Note that sugar has various aliases: Brown sugar, corn syrup, high-fructose corn syrup and evaporated cane juice are a few examples. Other ingredients you should avoid are partially hydrogenated oils, trans fat, and food dyes, which will be marked with a number symbol, such as red #40 or blue #5.

3. Your favorite juice is branded as a “fruit drink.”

If you see the word “drink” on a product, that’s a telltale sign that it’s not 100% juice, says Dr. Sears. Look carefully at the ingredient list to make sure you’re getting pure fruit juice — unhealthy drinks will contain 10% or less of pure juice. You should also avoid beverages with added sugars such as high-fructose corn syrup. Otherwise, you may be quenching your thirst with just sugar water.

4. The serving size on the nutrition facts label may not be realistic.

Most people look at the calories on the back of the box, but they often miss the number right above it. “The most misunderstood or missed item on the label is serving size,” says American Dietetic Association (ADA) spokesperson Bonnie Taub-Dix, R.D. “Most people don’t realize what’s written on the label is not necessarily the same size serving that you would normally eat.” For example, that bag of microwave popcorn you had was supposed to serve three people! If you don’t check the serving size, you could be eating double or even triple the calories you expected.

5. Simple math can help you choose the best cereal, bread, or crackers.

When you’re buying cereal, bread, or crackers, look for complex carbohydrates without a lot of added sugar, says Dr. Sears. You can determine this by subtracting the amount of sugars from the total carbohydrates. The larger the difference, the better. For example, each serving of Froot Loops contains 26 grams of carbs and 12 grams of sugar. Almost 50% of the total carbs in Froot Loops comes from added sugar. Compare that to All Bran, with 24 grams of carbs and 8 grams of sugar. You should also look at the amounts of fiber and protein. “If you have at least 3 grams of fiber and 5 grams of protein, that’s a pretty good cereal. Once you start getting below 3 grams of fiber per serving, it’s most likely a junk cereal,” says Dr. Sears.

6. When buying organic chicken go for USDA Organic not free-range and hormone-free.

Look for the green seal that says USDA Organic. Although free-range and hormone-free are truthful claims, these qualities alone do not meet the strict guidelines established by the USDA. Farmers or manufacturers have to follow specific standards that regulate how a food is grown or raised, handled and processed in order to call their products organic.

7. Here’s the secret to choosing a healthy snack—go for those that are low in saturated fat and trans fat.

Don’t be fooled by packages that make prominent claims that they’re trans-fat free, since these foods can still be high in saturated fat, says Cynthia Sass, R.D., ADA spokesperson. Both are linked to heart disease, so you should aim for smaller amounts. You should also be wary of low-fat and fat-free foods (with the exception of dairy products), because food companies often compensate for the lack of fat by adding more sugar.

8. Skip the corn oil and pure vegetable oil.

The terms “pure,” “and/or” and “vegetable oil” make it impossible to know exactly what you’re eating. “Pure” is another term like “natural” in that it has no real meaning. Since some vegetables are more nutritious than others, consumers should know which ones were used instead of the generic term “vegetable oil.” The phrase “and/or” is even trickier: this gives companies the option to substitute cheaper, less nutritious ingredients without having to change the label. The most nutritious oils are flaxseed, canola and soybean, which are good sources of omega-3 fats.

9. You want to eat more fiber, so you reach for the loaf of bread that’s made with whole wheat, not stone ground wheat, cracked wheat or enriched flour.

Most of the flour we eat is white, or refined, flour. It’s processed by grinding wheat while sifting out the bran and germ — along with a significant amount of fiber, vitamins, and minerals. Enriched flour has these nutrients added back in, but it still doesn’t contain as much fiber as whole wheat flour, which is made by grinding the entire wheat grain. Stone ground wheat flour and cracked wheat just describe how grain is processed. Note that not all whole grains are high in fiber, meaning 5 or more grams of fiber per serving, says Taub-Dix. The best way to determine how much you’re getting is to check the nutrition facts.

10. Organic produce and meat do not necessarily have more nutrients.

“Organic doesn’t necessarily imply that a food is nutritious or that it’s heart-healthy,” says Sass. “It can actually be a high source of calories or sodium or any other number of nutrients that people should avoid.” Another thing to remember: “There’s no one food that’s going to cure all ills or make you live forever. It’s a combination of everything in your diet,” says Taub-Dix.

Adapted from Food Labels: Can You Tell Fact From Fiction?

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Originally Published in Reader's Digest