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window to health-understanding food labels

Window to Health-Understanding Food Labels

By Elaine Guinan on February 1, 2018

How much of your food comes with a food label? For most Americans, eating on the go has become a part of the daily routine. The switch from homemade food to prepackaged means that we don’t really know what has gone into our food without checking the labels. Unfortunately, foods labels are not the easiest to understand on first glace.  Food labels have been in the press more in recent months, as the FDA are planning changes which are designed to make understanding labels easier for consumers.

Until this happens, here’s a quick guide to the current FDA guidelines, to help you make healthier choices when grabbing prepackaged foods.

Serving Size

Noting the serving size that the label refers to is of huge importance, as some companies may list a serving which may be half of what you serve yourself. Take note of the total servings a packet contains, and how much of the product you would eat.

Calories

It’s important to mindful of calories of snacks, as often snacks contribute a lot to overall intake, and they tend to be calories that we do not eat mindfully. There can be an emphasis on low calorie products, to help with weight maintenance, however it may be useful to think of what the food contributes to your overall daily intake. For example, a 200 calorie snack bar which is low in protein and fiber may not fill you up, and you may end up overcompensating later on because you are still hungry. In contrast, a 300 calorie snack which has protein, fiber and healthy fats will be more nutritious and keep you going for longer, making it less likely that you will need more snacks.

Total Fat, Saturated Fat and Trans Fats

Total fat content remains listed on labels, even though the latest Dietary guidelines removed the recommendation to limit total fat. We need fat to be healthy, however the type of fat is important. Dietary guidelines recommend limiting calories from saturated fat to less than 10% of your daily calorie needs. You’ll notice that there is a percentage of your daily value figure on the label, to help you work this out. This is based on a 2000 calorie diet per day, if you are smaller and less physically active, you may need less calories than this to maintain a healthy weight.

Trans fats should be limited as much as possible, as they increase unhealthy cholesterol, and decrease good cholesterol.

Cholesterol

Cholesterol is a type of fat found in foods such as eggs and shellfish. Studies have now shown that dietary cholesterol does not increase blood cholesterol so this is not an issue.

Sodium

Dietary guidelines recommend that Americans limit total sodium intake to less than 2300 milligrams. High sodium intake has been linked to high blood pressure. Most of the sodium we eat daily comes from packaged foods, including unsuspecting sources such as bread- this is why reading labels is important! Try to choose the lowest sodium products available to avoid this.

Total Carbohydrate

Carbohydrates are often feared by people, due to the popularity of low carb diets for weight loss. You may have heard that carbohydrates make you fat, however this is untrue, as it is an excess of calories which will contribute to weight gain. It is important, however, that we get carbohydrates from healthy sources. To assess this, look at the fiber and total sugar content listed on the label.

For a normal, healthy diet, aim for higher fiber foods, as they help to keep the bowel healthy and may reduce the risk of developing several forms of cancer. The recommended daily value (DV) of fiber for a 2000 calorie diet is 25g per day. When comparing foods, choose foods with a higher % DV of dietary fiber to help you reach 100% of the Daily Value for dietary fiber on most days. Any food which provides 20% DV or more of dietary fiber per serving is high fiber, so choose these options.

Sugar on food labels is  also important to note. We should all limit the amount of added sugars in food. Added sugars are added in production, and an excess of these can contribute to weigh gain and increase the risk of metabolic disease. The new FDA labels will list the amount of added sugar a food contains, to make choosing health options easier.  Until the new labels are rolled out, you should read the list of ingredients to see how much of the sugars listed are added sugars. The higher up the list of ingredients sugar appears, the more sugar the product contains. Don’t forget, sugar is often  called other things-generally, any ingredients ending in “ose” (for example dextrose, fructose), or any syrups are sugars. Try to avoid these foods if possible. For more information on types of sugar click here.

Protein

Foods with higher protein contents tend to help fill you up, so picking a high protein snack is a good way of staving off hunger between meals.

Calcium, Iron, Vitamins A and C

These are listed as they were nutrients which many Americans were lacking. These nutrients can generally be provided in sufficient quantities by a balanced diet. The new dietary label will list vitamin D and potassium in place of vitamins A and C.

For most people , the main nutrients to look at are calories, saturated fat and sodium and protein. When buying a snack, try to choose one with a reasonable amount of calories, a higher amount of protein, and less saturated fat and sodium. Learning to use food labels requires effort, but it’s something that pays off in the long run. Once you know which products are healthier, your shopping will become faster, and maintaining a healthy diet will be easier than ever.

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