To Eat Right, Digest the Fine Print
By Bev Bennett |
The information you need to make wise decisions about nutrition is there on the food label if you know what to look for.
Reading labels on food packages leaves adult educator Wendy Yanow confused and irritable.
"I'm reasonably savvy about food labels and I read the fine print, but I haven't been educated to know what certain terms mean," says Ms. Yanow, who lives in Evanston, Ill. "For example, I don't know what low-carbohydrate means. It bothers me to be told a product, such as a low-carbohydrate food, is good for weight loss when I don't have the facts."
The sharp rise in obesity has a lot of us searching supermarket aisles for healthier foods. But most shoppers say the information on food products is conflicting and confusing, according to a survey by the Food Marketing Institute (a supermarket industry group) and Prevention magazine. Like Ms. Yanow, many are trying to heed food labels, the survey of 1,000 consumers found. But sifting through the messages takes skill.
Although food makers say they're trying to address our health concerns, their bottom line remains the same: selling products. "You have to separate the nutritional buzzwords from the nutrition," says Julie Miller Jones, Ph.D., nutrition professor at the College of St. Catherine in Minnesota.
Take the carbohydrate issue that riles Ms. Yanow.
The government has yet to define a low-carbohydrate food, though it says it plans to do so. Meanwhile, you may see a carton of high-fat, high-calorie heavy cream boasting that it's a low-carbohydrate product. If you don't read the Nutrition Facts panel on the package, you might think that cream, which has about 50 calories per tablespoon, is fine as part of a weight-loss diet.
It bothers Dr. Jones that nutrition bars, which she calls "fortified candy bars," are also touted as healthy.
Skip the advertising copy with claims such as "gives you energy," the experts say. "The front of the label is advertising designed to make you buy the package," says Beth Kitchin, R.D., assistant professor of nutrition sciences at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Instead, read the whole package. The information you need to make wise decisions is there if you know what to look for, she says.
Here are the key elements on food packages:
This panel is your best source of information on a food's nutritional makeup and the vitamins and minerals in a serving.
For a nation facing rampant weight gain, the Nutrition Facts information on calories and serving size is crucial, says Marion Nestle, Ph.D., professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University.
Unfortunately, consumers often look at calories but ignore serving size. A 20-ounce bottle of cola, for example, is supposed to yield 2½ servings. Yet most people drink the whole thing as one serving, getting more than twice the calories they may think they're getting.
In the future, you may be better able to judge the caloric effect of larger portions. The government wants to change the serving size on many food labels to reflect what people really eat or drink. What's more, you may see calories listed on products in larger type. Other label changes are under way to address health concerns. By 2006, makers will have to list the amount of trans fats, which tend to raise cholesterol levels.
Nutrition content claims
Products that meet certain provisions as healthy foods can carry claims. The claims, defined by the government, include nutrients, cholesterol, fiber or calories.
Keeping an eye on claims can help you meet your dietary goals. Say you want to increase the calcium in your diet. Look for the phrase "high in calcium," which means the product offers at least 20 percent of your daily calcium needs per serving. Likewise, if you're trying to cut back on salt, buy "low-sodium" products, which have 140 mg of sodium or less per serving.
Low-carbohydrate hasn't been defined by the government, even though some food companies use it.
A health claim is language the government permits to describe the link between a nutrient or food and the risk for a health problem. For instance, oatmeal -- rich in soluble fiber -- can carry the claim that diets low in saturated fat and cholesterol that include soluble fiber from oatmeal may reduce the risk for heart disease. Companies can make qualified health claims for foods that show limited evidence of benefits.
Should you pay attention to health claims? No, argues Dr. Nestle, author of Food Politics. "The number one thing to ignore on a package is a health claim. It's designed to encourage you to buy the food," she says.
There's a mother lode of information in the fine print, says Dr. Jones. Ingredients usually must be listed by weight according to the maker's "recipe." The ingredient present in the highest amount is listed first.
If you're buying a chicken and vegetable frozen potpie, you want the vegetables listed before the gravy. If you're buying a hearty wheat bread to increase your whole-grain intake, then whole-wheat flour and not refined flour should be the first ingredient.
"The ingredient statement should reflect what's in the food," says Dr. Jones.
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