While the front of packages and Nutrition Fact Panels on foods provide a wealth of information, the label lingo can get confusing. To help clear up the mistakes people commonly make when reading these labels, Bonnie Taub-Dix, MA, RD, CDN, the author of Read It Before You Eat It (Plume, 2010) helps clear up the chaos.
What does “low” really mean?
Q: When a label says “low” in something, it must mean it’s pretty healthy, right?
A: Not so fast. Bonnie says, “Products that are low in one thing could be high in another, creating a food that’s not all that low in calories.” When manufacturers lower the fat in a food, many times the sugar content increases, adding calories back in. In this case, it’s not uncommon to see a 10 or 20 calorie difference per serving, which likely won’t add up to much in the long run.
What to look for in food labels
Q: Since the Percent Daily Values (% DV) and calories seem straight forward, can I ignore the rest of the label?
When something seems too easy to be true, it probably isn’t true. Bonnie points out that “the Daily Values found on food labels are based upon consuming an average diet of 2,000 calories per day.” Since for many women a weight loss diet means only 1,200 to 1,800 calories, some of your goals should be lower, such as for total fat, saturated fat and carbohydrates. While 2,300 milligrams is the current DV for sodium, many experts believe that 90 percent of Americans should be eating much less than this to decrease their risk of stroke, kidney disease and high blood pressure.
The high fructose corn syrup debate
Q: First, I heard that high fructose corn syrup causes obesity. Then I heard its okay. Which is it?
The jury is still out on this one. “Although high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is far from healthy, it is not the only culprit. Sugar provides about the same amount of calories.” She also believes that “the reins need to be pulled in on all products that contain a lot of HFCS and sugar that are low in nutrient value and high in calories.” These products can mean anything from sugary drinks, candy, ice cream, granola bars and a variety of commercially-made sauces.
Understanding the different types of fats
Q: Since avocados, nuts and olive oil are higher in fat, do I need to avoid these in order to lose weight?
A: In a word, no. “The goal is to choose foods higher in unsaturated fat (monounsaturated fat, polyunsaturated fat), lower in saturated fat, and with no (that’s zero) trans fat.” Avocados, nuts and olive oil fall into the mono- and polyunsaturated fat category and are nutrient rich in other vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. Since they are more calorically dense than most fruits and vegetables, portion control is key. One-fifth of a medium avocado, 1/4 cup of nuts, and a couple teaspoons of olive oil are reasonable portions that can fit into most diet plans regularly.