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Dietitians' Dish: Food labels tell true story

By By Stephanie Whitley
Feb. 25, 2014 at midnight
Updated Feb. 24, 2014 at 8:25 p.m.


Everyone can use a refresher on reading food labels. Marketing can be very deceiving.

For example, shopping for crackers can be more difficult than necessary. Many labels state the crackers are made with whole grain or stone-ground wheat, but when you look at the ingredients, the cracker is not a true whole grain because the first ingredient listed is enriched wheat flour.

The key word is whole. If this is part of the first ingredient listed, you have a true whole grain.

This is only one of many examples on how food packaging reading can be so tricky.

What you can count on, however, is the nutrition facts label regulated by the Food and Drug Administration. You just have to know how to read it correctly.

Let's start at the top: the serving size. It is always important to note this because many packaged foods have multiple servings per package. Try to measure out the appropriate serving size a couple of times until you can get a good eye for it so you know exactly how much and what you are eating.

The next section tells you the calories per serving and calories from fat per serving. This is helpful when counting calories for weight control, and it is wise to know general calorie amounts of foods so you aren't unknowingly choosing high-calorie foods and wonder why you are gaining weight. The calories from fat are found by multiplying the grams of fat (per serving) by 9 (the number of calories in a gram of fat).

The first nutrient section on the nutrition facts label is fat. There are many different types, and the total grams of fat are listed first. Below total fat are the grams of saturated and trans fat. Sometimes, the unsaturated fats (monounsaturated and polyunsaturated) are also written here. Usually, only trans and saturated fat are listed because these are the "bad" fats and must be listed as mandated by the FDA.

When the healthier unsaturated fats are not listed, you can subtract the grams of saturated and trans fat from the total grams of fat, and you are left with grams of unsaturated fats. When reading labels, choose foods in which the saturated and trans fats are as close to zero as possible.

This takes some skill, however. If a food has a trace amount of trans fat per serving but less than 0.5 grams, the label will state 0 grams of trans fat. To find out if there really is trans fat in your food, read the ingredients label. If the word hydrolyzed is present, there is at least a trace of trans fat.

Cholesterol is the next line down and is another nutrient we also want to keep as close to zero as possible. Cholesterol is made by living things; even humans make cholesterol. Therefore, whenever we eat an animal product - meat, eggs, poultry, seafood, dairy, butter, lard, etc. - we are also consuming cholesterol. The exception would be a product in which all of the fat has been removed, such as egg whites. The goal is to stay under 300 mg of cholesterol a day for healthy people over the age of 2 and under 200 mg a day for those with cardiovascular disease.

This week, try reading your labels more carefully and making wiser food choices for yourself. Next week, we will discuss the rest of the food label.

Stephanie Whitley is a registered and licensed dietitian DeTar Healthcare System. Send questions or comments to dietitians@vicad.com.

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