Don’t Let the Numbers Fool You: A User’s Guide to Nutrition Labels

by Marianne Beirne ***

woman comparing food labels in storeEver stood in the grocery aisle, staring at the nutrition label of a can of soup or box of cereal and tried to figure out if it was “healthy” or not? It can feel like you need an advanced degree in mathematics or chemistry to decipher all the numbers and ingredients. And that’s not even accounting for any dietary restrictions. For people with diabetes or congestive heart failure, trying to read food nutrition labels can not only be confusing, but potentially overwhelming. Fortunately, there are some things you can do to decrypt the nutrition label code.

The Nutrition Puzzle

According to Lane Hobbs, Virginia Mason registered dietitian and certified diabetes educator, food nutrition labels are not an “eat this, not that” source of information. It’s always going to show a percentage of something higher than others. What the nutrition label can do is help “put together the puzzle of your diet.” The big pieces of your dietary puzzle should be the low calorie, high vitamin and mineral types of food such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains and lean meat. The little pieces are the things that are higher in calories or fat – like butter or oil. An avocado may be higher in fat than lettuce, but that doesn’t make it unhealthy. It’s just information. Nutrition labels can help make those little pieces fit in your daily dietary puzzle.

Go Low

But you say, “I’m making spaghetti for my family for dinner – how do I know which sauce is the healthiest choice?” Lane suggests you look for foods that have lower sodium, higher fiber and lower sugar. Turns out, spaghetti sauces are high in sodium. Lane recommends that when you’re looking from label to label – like with spaghetti sauce – just pick the one with lower sodium. It’s the comparing that is helpful, not picking up an avocado and saying it has fat, I can’t eat that.

Do the Math

Checking nutrition numbers – sounds easy, right? Not necessarily. Percentages on nutrition labels are often confusing. For instance, you may think a label claiming the food has 12 percent fat means the food itself contains 12 percent fat. In actuality, that number is the estimated amount of fat a person needs during one day. Meaning if you eat a serving of that food, you would be getting 12 percent of the fat you need that whole day.

That information is particularly important when looking at high sodium foods like soup – one serving size may contain a third of the amount of sodium a person needs all day. So if you are comparing soups labels, go for the one with less sodium – or better yet, make it fresh yourself.

Familiarize Yourself

If you are on a no/low sodium diet, don’t panic when reading labels or trying to find heart healthy recipes. Sodium is natural in foods. Lane advises you to simply not add sodium to your meals. Or don’t eat as many foods that have higher amounts of sodium.

But how do you figure out a recipe’s sodium component? Get familiar with what ingredients already have a lot of salt like sausage, blue or parmesan cheese, or chicken broth. If those salty ingredients are already in the recipe, says Lane, don’t add additional salt. Looking at nutrition labels is one way you can starting learning what foods have a lot of salt.

It Gets Easier

New Food Nutrition LabelFortunately, reading nutrition labels should get easier in the future. New, simpler nutrition labels will be required in 2018. There will still be a lot of information on the labels, but the goal is to make some things more transparent, like serving size. Today one container of yogurt may actually have a serving size of two servings. Going forward, the nutrition information for that yogurt will indicate one serving size.

Another improvement coming to future nutrition labels: changing “sugar” to “added sugar.” Right now, sugar numbers on a nutrition label do not have much meaning. Milk and yogurt, for example, have sugar on the label because it’s natural – sugar is part of the dairy. In the future, however, the nutrition labels will indicate when sugar has been added to the food. Thus, skim milk won’t have added sugar while chocolate milk will.

But you don’t need to wait until 2018 to get something useful from a nutrition label. Lane suggests you just learn a little at a time, and be careful about serving size. Serving size is one of the most important things on the label.

***

Marianne is a Web Producer for Virginia Mason who hates to do math. She’s looking forward to food labels that don’t make her have to think as much.

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