By Susan Burke March, MS, RD, LD/N, CDE
What to eat? Seems like a simple question, but it’s one that can vex even the most savvy eater, especially when trying to make sense of food packaging. How many times do you browse the grocery aisles trying to discern the best pasta, cereal or bread? Most concerned healthy eaters know the obvious, like there is no fruit in Froot Loops.” But what about grown up foods? You know, those labeled as whole grain, all natural or healthy?
Food Label Foolishness
There is much confusion for consumers who rely on the front of food packages to make their choices. Although natural should mean no artificial colors or ingredients, the term natural isn’t a guarantee that the product contains whole wheat or any fruits or vegetables at all.
Cut through the confusion and read the package from back to front – read the ingredient label first! Heed these tips to shop smart amid:
Natural: In your quest to find foods that nourish, do you purchase foods labeled 100% Natural, Healthy, or No Artificial Ingredients without actually reading the ingredients? The USDA says that the “natural” claim means that the food does not contain any artificial ingredients, coloring ingredients, or chemical preservatives, and, in the case of meat and poultry, is minimally processed. However, the meat may be full of natural flavors and naturally raised doesn’t mean the animal isn’t raised on a factory farm. A can of iced tea can read 100% Natural Tea, however the ingredients include filtered water, high fructose corn syrup and lemon flavoring.
Multi-grain: From breads to crackers to hot and cold cereals, multi-grain does not mean whole grain it means just about nothing at all, except that the product contains an undefined amount of different types of grains. What you really want to look for is 100% whole grain, so you’re assured you’re getting all of the good nutrition from that grain’s kernel the nutrients, including vitamin E and magnesium, and fiber.
To know what you’re eating, read the serving size first, then the calories per serving, how much fiber and then how much sugar per serving (for example, a serving of shredded wheat and bran mini wheat’s is 1 ¼ cup, has 200 calories, 7 grams of fiber and less than 1 gram of sugar!).
Low Glycemic Index: The glycemic index ranks foods based on the how quickly they elevate blood sugar levels compared to the same quantity of a reference food (pure glucose or white bread). In addition to not considering the amount of food usually eaten, the GI doesn’t include the amount of fiber in the food. A medium baked potato has a higher GI (85) than a Snickers bar (55), and who’d say a candy bar is better than a baked potato? In the context of healthy”ignore the glycemic index and focus on whole foods, with fiber, in portions that are right for you.
Organic: The truth is, if it’s sugar, it’s sugar organic or not, they are empty calories. I took a cruise through the breakfast aisle, and found “organic toaster pastries” but compared to conventional toaster pastries, there’s just as much sugar, and making it “organic” doesn’t make it lower in calories or higher in fiber. If you’re looking for a healthy breakfast that’s convenient and portable, choose a toaster waffle with whole grains.
Fat Free foods: Yes, we want to be free to eat what we like, and for many, that means fake foods that imitate sweets and desserts. However, foods labeled“low fat” or“fat free”does not make it calorie free.—The most important thing to look at when you’re reading a label is not the calories, fat or sugar, but always, it’s the serving size that must be read first.
Buyer beware! Seemingly healthy foods such as yogurt and oatmeal may contain copious amount of added sugars; breads and crackers are often made with heart-unhealthy hydrogenated oils (trans fat). Miracle juices and energy” bars, touted as healthful, are usually just vehicles for added sugars and excessive calories. Consider this representative list of some surprisingly unhealthy foods:
Yogurt: Plain, low fat or nonfat yogurt is such a healthy food, because it’s a delicious low fat source of calcium, vitamin D and magnesium and protein, but many manufacturers have taken liberties with yogurt! They’ve loaded it up with excess unwanted calories. Yogurt should have but two ingredients: milk and live cultures. Stay wholesome by staying simple, and that goes for kids’ yogurts too.
Tortilla and Taco Shells: Generally low in fat, usually made from corn or wheat, or both but read the ingredient label first, because many brands are quite high in fat, and are often made with hydrogenated fat, or trans fat (hydrogenated oils). Trans fat can raise bad cholesterol but also lower good HDL cholesterol.
Instant oatmeal: Looking for convenience and nutrition, we make the mistake of reading the front of the package for descriptors such as wholesome and nutritious.
Granola: Granola may be natural”but it’s also a typically calorie-dense food, not nutritionally desirable if it’s full of oil and sugar. Stick with a high fiber, lower sugar cereal, and if you like granola, use as a topping on a yogurt and fruit parfait (nonfat Greek yogurt and berries).
Miracle Juices: There are no studies that show that drinking juice will prevent disease, and people who are watching their weight need to remember that calories in fruit juice are equivalent to soda no fiber here, and a very quick way to get excess calories. Eat whole fruit, for more energy and fiber, and save your calories for fullness.
“Energy” bars: – Another name for energy is calorie, and most bars are more akin to candy bars than nutritious snacks. The first ingredient is usually refined flour (not whole grain), then sugar, sugar, and more sugar, in a myriad of guises, including corn syrup, molasses, honey and more. For sustainable energy, grab a cup of 100-calorie yogurt and stir a cup of crunchy low-sugar cereal into the cereal; make a fresh-fruit smoothie with nonfat yogurt, milk and berries, or pack a tuna sandwich on whole wheat with an orange.
Microwave popcorn: Popcorn is a great snack, but not when it’s loaded with hydrogenated fat (trans fat), artificial flavors and preservatives. Additives make it high in fat calories relative to volume, and often the microwave popcorn is loaded with hydrogenated fat. It’s so easy, with an air-popper. For a heartier snack, toss the hot popcorn with some grated cheddar cheese.
Rice cakes: Although they’re somewhat lower in calories than potato or Doritos chips, rice cakes offer little in nutritional value and certainly little fiber, and they’re often are high in sodium and sugar (if they’re flavored). Better: whole-wheat pita chips (make your own: slice into quarters, spray with cooking spray and toast) with some hummus or peanut butter.
Shop armed with information to help you read beyond the packaging and make weight-wise choices. And, of course, always shop with a list, never shop when you’re hungry, and read the ingredient label first. These three smart strategies help you keep the focus on healthy, good for you foods (that taste good, too). Making weight control second nature means shopping purposely, refusing to be swayed by advertising, and taking the time to enjoy the flavor of real food! Your payoff will be better taste, improved nutrition and good health.
Registered and licensed dietitian Susan Burke March, MS, CDE, is the author of “Making Weight Control Second Nature: Living Thin Naturally a book intended to liberate serial “dieters and make living healthfully and weight-wise intuitive and instinctual over the long term. Susan also serves as the Resident Nutrition Expert for www.HeathyWage.com, which empowers healthy living through incentives, social support, goal-setting and technology. She may be reached online at www.SusanBurkeMarch.com.