How to choose healthy packaged foods

Sep 11, 2009 at 3:47 p.m. ET

To determine the freshness of your favorite fruit or vegetable you might squeeze, smell or even sneak a taste at the grocery store. But, when it comes to packaged foods it's not as easy to evaluate their quality or healthfulness. If you are among the 78 percent of Americans who want easier to read nutritional information and ingredient lists on food products, you may be wondering what to look for when purchasing foods for your family. To help clear up the most common label reading confusion, we asked Dr Idamarie Laquatra, global director of nutrition for HJ Heinz Company, a leader in healthy, convenient and affordable packaged foods, to give us the scoop.

Woman preparing dinner from can

Packaged foods are convenient

Certainly a diet comprised of fresh, minimally processed foods is ideal, but the truth is, with busy family schedules and little time to shop and cook exclusively from scratch, packaged foods can often mean the difference between a home cooked meal or a trip to the drive-thru.

Though research conducted by the International Food Information Council (IFIC) in early 2009 that found taste rated highest for impact on consumer food or beverage purchase decisions and convenience rated lowest, a more recent study commissioned by Heinz indicates that, after a hard day, nearly half of Americans are ultimately looking for quick and convenient meals.

The Heinz survey also reports that women seek meals that are healthy and convenient to prepare. You know packaged foods are convenient, but how do you know if they are also good for your family? Knowing how to read food labels on packaged items is the best way to choose the healthiest foods for your family.

How to choose the healthiest packaged foods

"Learning how to interpret a nutrition label allows consumers to focus on nutrients that are most meaningful to their personal health," explains Dr Laquatra.

The nutrition expert suggests the following rules to choose the best packaged goods:

1. Seek out nutritious packaged foods. Claims like "high in fiber," "rich in calcium" or "excellent source of vitamin C" mean one serving provides at least 20 percent or more of the recommended daily amount of the specified nutrient. When a label says "good source of," it means the item contains 10 to 19 percent of the recommended daily amount per serving.

2. Minimize the unhealthy packaged items. Instead of choosing the full fat, full sugar items, opt for their healthier counterparts. When a food label says "reduced" or "less," it means that the item has 25 percent less of a nutrient, such as sugar or fat, than the usual product that doesn't carry this claim.

3. Tally the fat content. Many packaged foods have lower fat versions. "Fat free" products must have less than half a gram (0.5 gram) of fat per serving. Products advertising that they are "low in fat" must have 3 grams or less of fat per serving. To reduce your family's total fat and calorie intake, choose "fat free" or "low fat" products.

The Daily Value can be misleading

Even though a food label provides the percentage of Daily Value of many nutrients, it doesn't apply specifically to everyone. "Something some people overlook is that the nutrition facts label, which gives the serving size, calories and nutrients per serving, is typically based on nutrition recommendations for someone eating 2,000 calories per day," explains Dr Laquatra. "For example, a product listing fat at 30% Daily Value means the product contains 30 percent of the amount of fat needed by a person who consumes 2,000 calories."

Based on your age, size and activity level, you may actually need fewer (or more) than 2,000 calories per day, which means you may actually miscalculate your daily intake. "When reviewing a nutrition label, consumers need to consider whether their nutrition needs are greater or less than someone who eats 2,000 calories per day," Dr Laquatra adds.

Pay attention to product expiration dates

Reading product nutrition labels isn't the only way to ensure you're choosing the best foods for your family. Understanding the expiration dates is another way to keep your family healthy and safe. However, what do those "Sell By" and "Use By or Before" indications mean?

According to Dr Laquatra, the FDA offers information about food product dating, but does not require product dating except for infant formula and some baby foods. The nutrition expert advises, "It's best to contact the manufacturer directly for information about what their product dating codes mean."

Food product dating terms that may be helpful include:

  • The "Sell By" date tells the store how long to display the product for sale. You should buy the product before the date expires.
  • The "Best if Used By or Before" date is recommended for best flavor or quality. It is not a purchase or safety date.
  • The "Use By" date is the last date recommended for the use of the product while at peak quality. The date has been determined by the manufacturer of the product.
  • The "Closed" or coded dates are packing numbers for use by the manufacturer.

Dr Laquatra warns, "We wouldn't recommend eating any food beyond its known expiration date for food safety reasons as well as food quality and taste."

meeting consumer demand for healthier foods

Being a leader in packaged foods, Heinz is continually researching ways to satisfy the consumer demand for conveniently packaged foods that are also healthy.

"At Heinz, we're helping people of all ages to live healthier lives through better nutrition," says Dr Laquatra. "We're advancing the knowledge of nutrition through scientific research, and we're making foods that have more of the 'good stuff' and less of the bad – less sodium and fat, and no trans fats."

Foods that are healthy and delicious

Taste is another key to keeping consumers happy. "People won't stick with healthy food choices unless they taste good," Dr Laquatra explains. "Heinz has teams of chefs and culinary artists working hand in hand with food scientists and nutritionists to cook up foods that are healthful and delicious."

In addition, the global nutrition team for Heinz includes 22 members in 10 countries who inform product development. The team also works with accredited scientific experts and regulatory bodies to ensure that food ingredients continually reflect the latest advances in nutrition knowledge and scientific consensus. "As a result, we are offering consumers around the world more choices than ever to address their personal dietary and nutritional needs," concludes Dr Laquatra.

Examples of healthier packaged foods from Heinz:

  • Heinz Baked Beans: 32% less sodium
  • Heinz Pasta: 31-52% less sodium, depending on variety
  • Heinz Cream of Tomato Soup: 32% less sodium
  • Heinz Ketchup "no salt added" variety
  • Heinz Reduced Sugar Ketchup
  • Heinz Organic Ketchup
  • Ore-Ida's Steam and Mash Cut Red Potatoes and Cut Sweet Potatoes
  • Bagel Bites (0g trans fat)

When perusing the supermarket aisles for convenient and healthy packaged foods, simply put your label reading skills to use and choose the healthiest options.

More on nutrition labels and healthy food choices