Walk through any grocery store, and you’ll see bright packages boasting health claims on any number of products ranging from chocolate-coated breakfast cereal (made with whole grain!) to chicken (all-natural, raised without antibiotics!).
Wander to the dairy case and find more confusing packaging: what is the difference between free-range eggs and conventional eggs? Is organic really healthier? Flip a product over to see the nutrition facts label, and you’ll see further puzzling information. Is all sugar bad? What kind of fat is the “good kind”?
We have good news. You don’t need a degree in nutrition to find healthy goods at the grocery store. Here are the basics to understanding label lingo.
Calories Per Serving
When you’re working on losing weight, staying aware of the calories you are taking in compared to the amount you are burning is a fundamental element. Check to make sure that the serving size matches your expectation; you may discover that there are two servings in a package instead of one, which means the number of calories on the label represents just half of the package.
Sugar gets a bad rap these days, but it is not all unhealthy. Fruits, vegetables, and dairy products all contain sugar, and sugar is necessary for brain function and good health. When sugar becomes unhealthy is when it is added unnecessarily to products to enhance the flavor. Check the nutrition facts label to make sure you are limiting added sugar to 5 grams or fewer.
Your doctor may have told you to eat foods high in fiber. Adults need at least 25 grams of fiber each day, which can be found naturally in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. For a food to be considered a good source of fiber, look for at least five grams per serving.
Some popular diets emphasize eating more fat, while conventional health advice has promoted low-fat diets. Which is correct? There are two sources of fat: animal products and plants. The type of fat to avoid is that which contributes to cardiovascular disease: saturated fat, trans fat and cholesterol. Look for foods that have 5% or less fat per serving, and avoid those that reflect 20% or more.
A heart-healthy diet is one that is low in sodium, less than 1 tsp per day (2,300 mg) for healthy adults and even less for those with risk factors or a family history of high blood pressure. To avoid added sodium, seek out plant-based and homemade meals and avoid processed foods.
What about words like, “low-fat,” or “natural”? The FDA has guidelines for what is able to be promoted as a healthy food. Here are some of the most common terms you will see at the grocery store:
- “Healthy” food must be low in fat, with limited cholesterol and sodium.
- Anything labeled “free” must only contain tiny amounts of the ingredient in each serving. For example, “trans-fat free” or “fat-free” products can have only 0.5 mg of trans fats or fat; “cholesterol-free” foods can only have 2 milligrams of cholesterol and 2 grams of saturated fat.
- A serving of a food labeled “low sodium” can have a maximum of 140 milligrams of sodium.
- A serving of “low cholesterol” food can have a maximum of 20 milligrams of cholesterol and 2 grams of saturated fat.
- One serving of a “low-fat” food can have a maximum of 3 grams of fat.
- A serving of a “low-calorie” food can have a maximum of 40 calories.
- A serving of a food labeled “reduced” must have 25% less of the ingredient (such as fat) than a serving of the regular version.
- One serving of a “light” food must have 50% less fat or 1/3 fewer calories than the regular version.
Shop savvy at the store, paying attention to the essential elements of the nutrition label like calories, sodium, and fat, and keeping in mind your goals. When in doubt, Wellview is here to help. Our Registered Dietitians are on hand to help you design the grocery list that will be best for you!
Click HERE to learn more about the Wellview services available to you. We can’t wait to work with you!
– HEATHER FUSELIER, CHWC, CFP, TTS
Health Advisor | Email Heather