If you are what you eat, then it’s probably a good idea to read food labels. Americans have become more health-conscious, with many people reducing their caloric intake in order to lose weight and monitoring the use of certain ingredients, such as salt, because of medical conditions. They also are looking for ways to make better food choices and to develop healthier eating habits. One of the best ways to start, according to experts, is by reading food labels, which often contain surprises. What appears to be a healthy food may actually be anything but.
The first thing is not to be fooled by what is on the front of the package, says Manuel Villacorta, a registered dietitian and national media spokesman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “For example, you can pick up a multigrain bar and see that it says it contains ‘more whole grain’ on the front, but when you look at the list of ingredients on the back, you’ll see it’s high in fructose,” he says. “You need to be an Inspector Gadget and read the fine print.”
Personal trainer Kelli Calabrese concurs. “Read the food label rather than the claims on the front of the package, which can be deceptive with pictures or words,” she says. Though she stresses the importance of reading food labels, Calabrese points out that most of the food the average person buys should be fresh — such as fish, fruits and vegetables — and not packages with labels. “Fresh food is always best. Frozen (food is) second-best and canned (food is) last,” she says.
Ingredients on labels are listed from the largest to the smallest in quantity. Special attention should be paid to the first one listed. “If the first ingredient is sugar, the whole thing is likely to be mainly sugar,” Villacorta says.
Calabrese believes that the fewer ingredients there are the better. “Be sure you recognize and can pronounce and identify all ingredients. If it sounds foreign to you, it should not be in your body,” she says. She believes it is useful to identify all of the potential names for sugar, which include sucrose, molasses, corn syrup, cocoa, inulin, maltitol and maltose.
When it comes to fats, it is important to be aware that they are not all created equal, points out Villacorta. “Look to pick products with polymers and monomers, which are heart-healthy. Watch the saturated fats,” he says. “Trans fats are a problem. … Think twice before eating them.”
It is also important to remember that the human body needs such ingredients as sodium. “No one is asking people to go totally salt-free, because sodium is needed for electrolytes and for the heart,” Villacorta says. He adds that the sodium content might be 150 milligrams in a snack, between 400 and 500 milligrams in a frozen meal, and 1,000 or more milligrams in just one tablespoon of soy sauce.
When it comes to carbohydrates, the listings on packages and labels are often misleading because there are no
breakdowns, Villacorta says. “Fiber and sugar are carbohydrates, but most manufacturers don’t list them in the carbohydrate total.”
Calabrese recommends avoiding foods that say they are enriched or fortified because they are typically very low in nutritional value. She suggests looking for high sources of fiber, i.e., foods with 16 or more grams per serving.
Another important thing is to read the servings per container, which enables a person to calculate how much of the package he or she should consume. It is a common mistake to overlook this when reading labels, says Villacorta. “Someone might read a label on a sugary drink that says three hundred calories and fifteen grams of sugar per serving. That doesn’t sound too bad, except the bottle contains three servings and the person thinks it is just one serving. This is a common mistake because most people don’t know sizes or how much eight ounces is. They will drink the whole bottle and think that is the whole serving,” he says.
Reading food labels may seem confusing at first, but Villacorta encourages people to keep with it. “Get used to reading labels so you can make sense of it,” he says.