Confused at the Grocery Store? We Can Help!

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Food labels can be confusing at best, intentionally misleading at worst. So what’s a shopper to do? Check out this first installment of our two-part series on how to navigate labels while you navigate the aisles. 

You’ve entered the grocery store, reusable bags and shopping list in tow. Heading down the aisles, you realize you’re a little confused. How do you make healthy choices when you’re overwhelmed by selections and all those details?  

Healthy Grocery Shopping Part 1: Reading Labels
According to the experts, the answer is relatively simple: Read the labels.

reading nutrition labels

What to Look for When Reading Labels

The first step in healthy shopping is to read, understand and compare labels.

“The ‘Nutrition Facts’ label contains a lot of information and can help you make a healthy choice when comparing similar foods,” advises Caitlin Griffin, RD, LD, Registered Dietitian at Renown Health.

She recommends the following:

  • Always start with the serving size and servings per container. If the label serving size is 1 cup, and you eat two cups, you are getting twice the amount of nutrients listed – i.e. twice the calories.
  • Check out the calories in one serving to use as a reference for comparison, but keep in mind that calories are not the only thing to examine. The nutritional make-up of the food is also very important to consider.
  • Use the Percent Daily Values (%DV) as your guide. Daily Values are based on a 2,000-calorie diet for the entire day. A food item with 10% DV of saturated fat, for example, means that particular food serving provides 10 percent of the amount of the total saturated fat a person on a 2,000 calorie diet should consume in one day; 100 percent being the limit for the entire day. However, you may need more or fewer calories — depending on your age, gender, height and physical activity level, among other considerations.
  • In general we can use % DV as a quick guide to compare similar foods and to determine if something is a healthy choice: LOW = 5% DV or less. Most people should aim for foods LOW in saturated fat and sodium; HIGH = 20% DV or more. Look for foods HIGH in dietary fiber, vitamins and minerals.
  • Trans Fats should be avoided altogether. The FDA has required all trans fats (partially hydrogenated oils) be removed from all foods. This transition may take three years or longer. In the meantime, make sure your foods contain 0gm of Trans Fat, and that the ingredient list does not contain the words “partially hydrogenated oil”; this is code for trans foods that can contain up to 0.5gm trans fat and be listed as 0gm.

Pay Attention to Macronutrients

Macronutrients are loosely defined as substances that provide energy. Recommendations for carbohydrates and protein will vary based on your calorie needs and become even more important for those people with diabetes.

Overall, though, Caitlin advises the following:

  • “Total Carbohydrate” listings already include the indented numbers that are called out below the top number for grams of dietary fiber and sugar. You do not need to add them together.
  • Sugar: The grams of sugar listed on the food label does not distinguish between naturally occurring sugars (like from fruit or milk) and added refined sugars (from table sugar, corn syrup, etc.). The best way to tell if something is high in added refined sugar is to check the ingredient list. If sugar (or any derivative of sugar — corn syrup, high fructose corn syrup, cane sugar, etc.) is one of the first three to four ingredients, it is not a healthy choice. Compare various brands of foods like cereals and yogurt to find one with the lowest sugar content.

Now that you’re in tune with those confusing labels, next week we’ll turn our attention to the claims made by some products. In our next installment, we’ll talk about key words that may appear on your product labels, helping you sort between “organic,” “natural” and “local.” 

Magnifier highlighting Nutrition Facts of Foods

Stay tuned! 

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