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Health Information | 10/29/2019

Using Nutrition Labeling to Make Healthier Choices

By  Margaret Ullmann-Weil, RD
woman reading a nutrition label on a can
There are two different sources of nutrition labeling information provided on packaged foods that can help you make more informed and better choices for a healthy diet. They are the Nutrition Facts label and the Ingredient List.

Nutrition Facts Label

As I discussed in a recent blog, there have been changes to the information shown on the nutrition facts label. But now let’s review how the Nutrition Facts label can help you make smart, healthier eating choices in key areas of nutrition.

#1: Portion Control

To achieve and maintain a healthy weight, it’s important to balance the number of calories you consume with the number of calories your body needs. Use the serving size and servings per container as a guide for reasonable portions.

#2: Count Calories

Pay attention to calorie intake to help you achieve and maintain a healthy weight. In the case of snacks, opt for lower-calorie to moderate-calorie foods, or about 150 calories per serving. When consuming high-calorie foods, be especially careful with portion size.

#3: Decrease Saturated Fat

Saturated fat can increase your risk of heart disease. Make healthy food choices by selecting foods that are low in saturated fat. Many baked products and processed foods contain saturated fat that may not be obvious, because often-used palm oil and coconut oil are sources of saturated fat. Check the label to see how many grams of saturated fat are in a serving or container.

#4: Limit Trans Fats

The new food labeling law bans the use of any artificial trans fats (trans fats that come from partially hydrogenated oils). Trans fats can increase the risk of heart attack and stroke by increasing levels of the unhealthy low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol. Meat and dairy foods contain small amounts of naturally-occurring trans fats which don’t fall under the FDA ban on trans fats. Like saturated fats, trans fats are clearly labeled on new food packages.

#5: Reduce Sodium intake

Use the nutrition label information to help decrease your intake of sodium, which has been associated with high blood pressure. Processed and canned foods often contain sodium in large amounts, and there can be substantial differences in sodium content from one brand to the next. Comparing different brands of the same food item can help you reduce your sodium intake.

#6: Eat More Fiber

Adequate dietary fiber is needed for maintaining a healthy digestive system and for decreasing the risk from some types of cancers. Choose breakfast cereals that contain more fiber than sugar. Select whole-grain breads instead of white bread. Starchy beans and lentils are also excellent sources of fiber, as are fresh fruits and vegetables.

#7: Use Percent Daily Value to assess if a food is high in a particular nutrient

Percent Daily Values are based on a 2,000-calorie per day diet. Even if your diet is higher or lower in calories, you can still use the Daily Value as a guide to know if a food is high or low in a specific nutrient:
  • Low: 5% or less of a nutrient
  • High:  20% or more of a nutrient

How reading the Ingredient List on packaged foods can help you

The ingredient list is an essential tool for people who have food allergies and need to avoid certain ingredients. It is also a useful tool for knowing exactly what you’re buying and for making better food choices. By law, ingredients are listed by quantity, from highest to lowest. This means that the first ingredient is what the manufacturer used the most of. Quickly scan the first three ingredients, because they make up the largest part of what you're eating. A good rule of thumb: if the first few ingredients include sugars, refined grains, or unhealthy fat you can assume that the product is not a healthy choice. Sugar may not always be at the top of the ingredient list but may appear numerous times in different forms in a food. Sugar goes by many different names – some of which you may not recognize as sugar. Examples include corn sweetener, dextran, molasses, malt syrup, maltose, and evaporated cane juice – a fuller, more complete list is below. A good rule of thumb: even if sugar is not at the top of the ingredient list, but you see a variety of different kinds of sugar listed among the ingredients, you can conclude that the product is high in added sugar.

table of common sugar names

Foods that have a long list of ingredients often contain preservatives and additives and may not be as healthy as the foods with a shorter list of familiar-sounding ingredients. It’s important to note that some wholesome packaged foods also contain preservatives, emulsifiers, and/or binders. Ideally those additives should be close to the last ingredients listed, and they shouldn’t outnumber the ingredients from actual foods. A good rule of thumb: the fewer the ingredients the better.

And remember: “Don’t eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food.” ~ Michael Pollan  

About The Author

Margaret Ullmann-Weil, RD

Margaret (Margie) Ullmann Weil is a registered dietitian and provides nutritional guidance and education to our patients. She joined Atrius Health in 2003. Her clinical interests are food allergies, celiac disease, other gastrointestinal issues, nutrition & functional medicine, and women’s nutrition.

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