What to eat? Seems like a simple question, but it’s one that can vex even the most savvy eater, especially when trying to make sense of food packaging. How many times do you browse the grocery aisles trying to discern the “best” pasta, cereal or bread? Most concerned healthy eaters know the obvious, like there is no fruit in “Froot Loops.” But what about “grown up foods”? You know, those labeled as “whole grain,” “all natural” or “healthy”?
Food Label Foolishness
There is much confusion for consumers who rely on the front of food packages to make their choices. Although “natural” should mean no artificial colors or ingredients, the term “natural” isn’t a guarantee that the product contains whole wheat—or any fruits or vegetables at all.
Cut through the confusion and read the package from back to front - read the ingredient label first! Heed these tips to shop smart amid:
: In your quest to find foods that nourish, do you purchase foods labeled “100% Natural,” “Healthy,” or “No Artificial Ingredients” without actually reading the ingredients? We’re at a disadvantage compared with countries such as Canada where labeling laws are more stringent and specific. The USDA says that the "natural" claim means that the food does not contain any artificial ingredients, coloring ingredients, or chemical preservatives, and, in the case of meat and poultry, is minimally processed. However, the meat may be full of “natural flavors” and “naturally raised” doesn’t mean the animal isn’t raised on a factory farm. It also doesn’t mean that the animal has access to the outdoors. A can of iced tea can read “100% Natural Tea,” however the ingredients include filtered water, high fructose corn syrup and lemon flavoring. That’s not natural to me.
: From breads to crackers to hot and cold cereals, “multi-grain” does not mean whole grain—it means just about nothing at all, except that the product contains an undefined amount of different types of grains. What you really want to look for is “100% whole grain,” so you’re assured that you’re getting all of the good nutrition from that grain’s kernel—the nutrients, including vitamin E and magnesium, and fiber. Some packages distract the consumer by touting impressive amounts of vitamins and minerals, even fiber. But, be a savvy consumer and look at the ingredients first, if you’re interested in buying products without artificial colorings, flavors, excessive sugar and salt. Be sure the first ingredient is “100% whole,” either wheat or other grain, and remember, a teaspoon of sugar equals 4 grams. To know what you’re eating, read the serving size first, then the calories per serving, how much fiber and then how much sugar per serving (for example, a serving of shredded wheat and bran mini wheats is 1 ¼ cup, has 200 calories, 7 grams of fiber and less than 1 gram of sugar!).
Low Glycemic Index
: Where “low carb” left off, the “low glycemic index” has taken over. The glycemic index ranks foods based on the how quickly they elevate blood sugar levels compared to the same quantity of a reference food (pure glucose or white bread). In addition to not considering the amount of food usually eaten, the GI doesn’t include the amount of fiber in the food. A medium baked potato has a higher GI (85) than a Snickers bar (55), and who’d say a candy bar is better than a baked potato? The quantity of food represented by that ranking is always 50 grams, regardless of how much food (volume) it takes to eat 50 grams; it’s real easy to eat 50 carbohydrate grams of cookies (7 small cookies) but much tougher to eat 50 carbohydrate grams of carrots (5 cups of carrots) in one sitting! In the context of “healthy” ignore the glycemic index and focus on whole foods, with fiber, in portions that are right for you.
: The truth is, if it’s sugar, it’s sugar—organic or not, high fructose corn syrup, honey, cane sugar or white, maple syrup, or agave nectar—all nutritive sweeteners have approximately 16-20 calories per teaspoon, and negligible nutrition—said differently, they are empty calories. I took a cruise through the breakfast aisle, and found “organic toaster pastries” but compared to conventional toaster pastries, there’s just as much sugar, and making it “organic” doesn’t make it lower in calories or higher in fiber. If you’re looking for a healthy breakfast that’s convenient and portable, choose a toaster waffle with whole grains.
: Yes, we want to be free to eat what we like, and for many, that means fake foods that imitate sweets and desserts. However, foods labeled “low fat” or “fat free” does not make it calorie free.—manufacturers add sugar to add texture and bulk lost from removing fat. A “sugar free” cookie may have a similar calorie count compared to the regular too. So, the most important thing to look at when you’re reading a label is not the calories, fat or sugar, but always, it’s the serving size that must be read first.
: “Fat Free” means less than a half a gram of fat per serving, “low fat” or “light” means less than 3 grams of fat per serving, and “reduced fat” means 25% less than the reference food. For example, Mayonnaise illustrates this perfectly. The “reference” or original mayo has 10 grams of fat per one tablespoon serving. The reduced fat version has 25% less fat, or 7.5 grams of fat per serving…still not a low fat food. But choose a “low fat” or “light” version, and you know it has 3 grams or less of fat per serving, a better choice.
Seemingly healthy foods such as yogurt and oatmeal may contain copious amount of added sugars; breads and crackers are often made with heart-unhealthy hydrogenated oils (trans fat). “Miracle” juices and “energy” bars, touted as healthful, are usually just vehicles for added sugars and excessive calories. Consider this representative list of some surprisingly unhealthy foods:
: Plain, low fat or nonfat yogurt is such a healthy food, because it’s a delicious low fat source of calcium, vitamin D and magnesium and protein, but many manufacturers have taken liberties with yogurt! They’ve loaded it up with excess unwanted calories. Consumers are distracted by words like “organic” and “natural” but even these words can’t undo nutritional damage from added sugars, “granola” and nuts—and more. Yogurt should have but two ingredients: milk and live cultures. Stay wholesome by staying simple, and that goes for kids’ yogurts too.
Tortilla and Taco Shells
: Generally low in fat, usually made from corn or wheat, or both…but read the ingredient label first, because many brands are quite high in fat, and are often made with hydrogenated fat, or trans fat (hydrogenated oils). Trans fat can raise bad cholesterol but also lower “good” HDL cholesterol. Search out better-for-you whole-wheat tortilla and taco shells made with canola or other vegetable oils.
: Looking for convenience and nutrition, we make the mistake of reading the front of the package for descriptors such as “wholesome” and “nutritious”. We know not to choose sugary cold cereals but convenience packages of instant oatmeal are no exception. Read the ingredient label first—one teaspoon of sugar equals four grams: some of the “maple” or other favors have more than 12 grams per serving. Buy whole oats, microwave for a minute in a glass dish, stir in a quarter-cup of raisins, cook one more minute, and Sweet!
: Granola may be “natural” but it’s also a typically calorie-dense food, not nutritionally desirable if it’s full of oil and sugar. Do a little label reading in the grocery store—most flaked or “twig” cereals such as Kashi GoLean list the serving size as 3/4 – 1 cup, for about 150 calories per cup. There is no standardized serving size for cereals, and most packaged granolas’ list the serving size as a mere quarter-cup, with about 160 calories per serving. No one is satisfied with just a quarter-cup of cereal and usually will pour their usual cup—multiplied by four, that’s 640 calories, plus milk! Granolas typically features a good amount of oil plus a number of different sweet ingredients, some which may sound healthful, but again, sugar is sugar, and all of it, maple syrup, cane sugar, brown sugar, cane sugar, agave nectar, honey—are recognized similarly by your body, and are all different ways to say more calories! Stick with a high fiber, lower sugar cereal, and if you like granola, use as a topping on a yogurt and fruit parfait (nonfat Greek yogurt and berries).
: The front of the package appeals to your quest for good health with words like “immune promoting” and “antioxidants”. The front label shows appealing photos of fresh fruit, but like all juice, the proof is in the fiber—and reading the nutrition facts label shows that juice contains just about none. There are no studies that show that drinking juice will prevent disease, and people who are watching their weight need to remember that calories in fruit juice are equivalent to soda—no fiber here, and a very quick way to get excess calories. Eat whole fruit, for more energy and fiber, and save your calories for fullness.
: Another name for “energy” is “calorie,” and most bars are more akin to candy bars than nutritious snacks. The first ingredient is usually refined flour (not whole grain), then sugar, sugar, and more sugar, in a myriad of guises, including corn syrup, molasses, honey and more. For sustainable energy, grab a cup of 100-calorie yogurt and stir a cup of crunchy low-sugar cereal into the cereal; make a fresh-fruit smoothie with nonfat yogurt, milk and berries, or pack a tuna sandwich on whole wheat with an orange (who says you have to have cereal for breakfast? Have lunch for breakfast and breakfast for lunch).
: Popcorn is a great snack, but not when it’s loaded with hydrogenated fat (trans fat), artificial flavors and preservatives. Additives make it high in fat calories relative to volume, and often the microwave popcorn is loaded with hydrogenated fat. Make it better! It’s so easy, with an air-popper: pop up a few cups and enjoy. For a heartier snack, toss the hot popcorn with some grated cheddar cheese.
: Although they’re somewhat lower in calories than potato or ‘Doritos’ chips, rice cakes offer little in nutritional value and certainly little fiber, and they’re often are high in sodium and sugar (if they’re flavored). Better: whole-wheat pita chips (make your own: slice into quarters, spray with cooking spray and toast) with some hummus or peanut butter.
Shop armed with information to help you read beyond the packaging and make weight-wise choices. And, of course, always shop with a list, never shop when you’re hungry, and read the ingredient label first. These three smart strategies help you keep the focus on healthy, good for you foods (that taste good, too). Making weight control second nature means shopping purposely, refusing to be swayed by advertising, and taking the time to enjoy the flavor of real food! Your payoff will be better taste, improved nutrition and good health.
Registered and licensed dietitian Susan Burke March, MS, CDE, is the author of "Making Weight Control Second Nature: Living Thin Naturally” – a book intended to liberate serial "dieters” and make living healthfully and weight-wise intuitive and instinctual over the long term. Susan also serves as the Resident Nutrition Expert for www.HealthyWage.com, which empowers healthy living through incentives, social support, goal-setting and technology. She may be reached online at www.SusanBurkeMarch.com.