Fill your grocery basket with fresh fruits and vegetables and you know you're buying nutritious products. But choosing healthy processed foods, such as cereal, bread and yogurt, isn't so easy.
Nutrition labels required on most foods are an important tool for determining the right choices among a daunting array of sometimes deceiving options.
"The beauty of a nutrition label is in comparison," said Karen Massey, who specializes in nutrition and consumer issues at the Routt County Cooperative Extension Office.
Ironically, many consumers get caught up in bold nutrition claims on the front of packages rather than the nutritional facts on the back, she said.
Though regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, claims such as low fat, low sugar and whole grain may mislead consumers into thinking the product is a healthy choice for their nutritional needs.
A product that is labeled low in fat, for example, may not be low in calories because of added sugar. Organic labeling doesn't mean a food is nutritionally rich, while whole grain doesn't necessarily mean whole grains or whole-grain flour are prominent ingredients in the product.
"As a dietitian, I have lost confidence in the way they have chosen to use these terms," Massey said.
Taking the time to flip over a package and zero in on key nutritional information is a much more accurate path toward losing weight, adding fiber and achieving other nutritional goals.
Tailoring your search
Nutrition labels may be a helpful tool, but that doesn't mean they are an easy tool. Considering the many different types of information on a nutrition label is enough to give anyone a headache in the grocery aisle.
Rather than getting overwhelmed, consumers can focus on information that is most important to their health needs, Massey said.
To start, they need to get an accurate sense of how much of a product they will eat. They can look at the serving information and the number of calories per serving, keeping in mind that manufacturers sometimes use small serving sizes to make a food seem low in calories.
Nutrients nearer to the top of the labels should, in general, be eaten in limited amounts. But consumers may need to take a closer look at some categories, such as total fat and total carbohydrates, to make sure avoiding a product doesn't mean avoiding beneficial nutrients.
People concerned about their risk of heart disease are wise to check the grams of saturated and trans fats listed under the total fat in a product. Keep in mind, a manufacturer can claim 0 grams of trans fats if a product has less than 0.5 grams per serving. The ingredients list will confirm small amounts of trans fats with the presence of hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oils.
The ingredients list also will show sources of beneficial fats, such as mono and polyunsaturated fats and omega-3 fats. These fats usually aren't specified under total fat but are signaled by healthy oils, nuts and seeds, and other ingredients in a product.
A wholesome peanut butter may be high in fat, for example, but most of that is monounsaturated fat, which can help lower bad (LDL) cholesterol. That may be a good addition to a person's diet, though in limited quantities because of fat's high calorie content.
The fiber portion of the carbohydrate category is a valuable reference for people looking to boost their digestive health or potentially lower their cholesterol.
The sugar portion of carbohydrates isn't so straightforward because it includes both naturally occurring sugars such as those in fruit and milk as well as added sugars such as high fructose corn syrup and table sugar.
Again, the ingredients label is going to help consumers confirm the types of sugars and also determine whether a product contains healthy starches, such as whole grains.
The percent daily value information is a general guide to help consumers determine if a product is high or low in the nutrients a person should have, or limit, throughout the day. Five percent is considered low, and 20 percent is considered high.
Percent daily values, which are based on a 2,000-calorie diet, are not going to be accurate for everyone's daily caloric profile, and so consumers shouldn't dwell too much on the information, Massey notes.
The ingredients list, which lists ingredients in descending order by weight, is a much more powerful tool in quickly determining which product is more nutritious. If the first ingredient of an applesauce is apples, for example, it's healthier than another brand listing water or high fructose corn syrup as the first ingredient.
"Use the list of ingredients to guide you about what might have most of what you want," Massey said.
Worth the time
Reading food labels doesn't mean consumers have to spend an extra hour in the grocery store. Massey suggests starting in one section of the grocery store per trip.
"It might take a little bit of time, but the next time you'll remember," she said.
In the end, the healthiest diets will probably involve more common sense than label reading. The closer a food is to its natural state, the more straightforward the nutrition information will be.
"You have to step back and think, 'Is this an inherently healthy product to begin with?'" Massey said.
This article includes information from the American Diabetes Association at www.diabetes.org and the FDA's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, www.cfsan.fda.gov.
Tamera Manzanares writes for the Aging Well program and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Aging Well, a division of Northwest Colorado Visiting Nurse Association, is a community-based program of healthy aging for adults 50 and older. For more information, visit www.agingwelltoday.com or call 871-7606.