Everyone knows the basics to reading those labels on the back of food products. (How many calories? How much sodium? What’s up with all that fat per serving?) However, you need an organized approach to analyzing them if you are going to really start to change the way your family is eating. I’ve highlighted a few basic rules.
1. Start with the ingredients. If there are things you’ve never heard of, look them up. Heck, we Google everything these days, so why not ingredients? If you have trouble pronouncing the ingredients, it’s probably unhealthy. If sugar or other forms of sugar, such as high fructose corn syrup, dextrose, sucrose, corn syrup, molasses, honey, is one of the top three ingredients, it’s probably not a food you should eat. If fat is a top ingredient, you should probably avoid it too. This includes: lard, cream and oils.
2. Look at the serving size. Remember, food companies know consumers want to eat healthier. But they also know we are lazy, and do not often think beyond the basics provided on the label. So, if you were a food company with a food kids love to eat, but a nutrition label that would frighten Moms, what would you do? Would you: A) redesign the packaging with nature-friendly themes or colorful cartoon animals doing active sports and hope the kids scream for it so much, you’ll buy it to keep them quiet, B) change your product to become healthier and perhaps lose customers, or, C) change the serving size to something ridiculously small that allows the nutrition facts to look artificially improved?
Most of the time, the companies do A and C. Not B.
So look at the serving size, and think about how much of that item you usually consume in one sitting. If the serving size bears no resemblance to what an average person might eat, the food company probably has something to hide. If you eat a whole candy bar, and the package says serving size 2, and you are tracking calories, fats, etc, you need to double the amounts on the label–you just ate two servings!
Of course, we want to look at calories. We all know we need to use more calories than we eat to lose weight.
3. Analyze the three things you want to avoid eating: fats, cholesterol, and salt. A good way to do that is by looking at the % Daily Value. This is the short cut way to look at food. If you consume 2,000 cal/day, you want to keep Total Fat < 65 g, Sat Fat <20 g, Cholesterol < 300 mg, and Sodium < 2400 mg. A basic rule of thumb is: DV% of: 5% or less is low, 20% or more is high. Note: there is no DV% for sugars and Trans fats. This means you are not supposed to eat them.
Bottom line: healthy eating seems to require making things from fresh ingredients–available in the produce and meat aisles of the store, not the frozen foods and packaged goods aisles. This challenge really will be a challenge!
Have you ever been shocked after reading a food label? Post a comment and tell me about it.
On Saturday, our nutritionist, Elizabeth Fassberg, came to our house to meet with us in person. She arrived while the kids were eating breakfast. Because of the challenge, I had melon, bananas, and grapes on the table for the kids to eat. (Points for mom!) But there was more than just healthy fruit on the table.
Michael, my son, decided to make a classic New Jersey breakfast sandwich: Taylor ham, eggs and cheese on a roll. Taylor ham is one of those regional foods that most people in north and central Jersey grew up eating, but few people outside of the area have ever even heard of, let alone tried. (Just like Philadelphia’s Scrapple or that Southern favorite: cheesy grits.)
Two things can be said for most regional favorite foods: 1) They are usually not the healthiest food choice to any nutritionist, and 2) If you grew up eating them, you can’t understand why it is not available everywhere, but most people, who never had them, can’t imagine why you eat them.
Elizabeth had never heard of Taylor ham, and it prompted her interest in the nutrition label.
- The serving size, according to the package, is 1 slice. But on a typical NJ breakfast sandwich, we would include 2 – 4 slices.
- One slice has about 70 calories; unfortunately, 54 calories are from fat and 3 g (or 15% of the recommended daily value – %DV) is from saturated fat/slice. And since there are only 3g of protein, 82% of the calories come from fat!
- It also has approximately 220 mg of sodium/ slice. So if we average 3 slices/ sandwich, the Talyor ham alone accounts for 660 mg salt (27% DV), 24 g fat (45% DV sat fat, and 27% DV total fat), and 9 g of protein.
It was time for change—in the form of compromises we could try to live with. I told Elizabeth that we were taking baby steps. Normally, he would have had the sandwich on a large toasted bagel or Kaiser roll. It was a step in the right direction to have a 100-calorie whole grain English muffin and a side of fruit instead of hash browns. We will try to limit the Taylor ham to two slices/sandwich.
Then came another eye-opening event. As the cabinet opened, Elizabeth saw our large bottle of brand name syrup, which we buy at the local warehouse store. I never thought of pancake syrup as a “healthy choice,” but I never stopped to read the ingredients label either. Most brand name syrups are simply dyed corn syrup and/or high fructose corn syrup! I never thought syrup was good for you, but I also never realized there was no maple syrup in my syrup!
I guess I need to begin to read nutrition labels. I know now from Elizabeth that if corn syrup is one of the top ingredients, consider an alternative. If there are ingredients I have trouble pronouncing, consider an alternative.
Pick one product to look at the nutrition label of today. Then post a comment and tell me about it!