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5 Food-Label Secrets to Help You Choose the Healthiest Grocery Items — and Leave Behind the Fakes

Knowing how to read nutrition labels is confusing now more than ever, with so much information circulating about what’s good for you and what’s not — and food manufacturers marketing all sorts of products as healthy. Whether you’re the type to go into the supermarket with an organized list of everything you’re eating for the week or you’re someone who walks in and wings it, food shopping can be an overwhelming endeavor. Knowing how to read nutrition labels can not only make your life easier, but it can also help you meet — and even exceed — your health and weight-loss goals.

Nutrition Facts Labels and Your Health

“We seem to spend more time shopping for what goes on our bodies (like clothing and shoes) than what goes in them, like food” says Bonnie Taub-Dix, RDN, author of Read it Before You Eat It: Taking You from Label to Table ($15.99, Amazon). “Yet food labels tell a story. They describe exactly what you’re putting into your body and what you’re feeding your family. Once you get the hang of how to scan a label for the stand out ingredients you’re looking for, food shopping will be a breeze.”

To help you in this effort, First for Women teamed up with Taub-Dix and came up with five things that you need to know about how to read food labels so that you can make the best choices in the grocery store for you and your family.

1. Beware of front-label buzzwords. 

We’re looking at you, “natural.” It seems like so many food products these days are sporting a “healthy” label like “all-natural,” “reduced-fat,” or even “organic.” Because of loose regulations, food manufacturers are able to label many products with popular buzzwords that they know will help their products sell. 

As Taub-Dix agrees, “Don’t be fooled by the flashy front of the package that might use magnetic words to attract you. Flip the package over to see what you’re really getting by checking out the nutrition facts panel and ingredient list.” 

2. Pay attention to where calories come from.

Not all calories are created equal, and depending on what your health concerns are, some calories are going to be more (or less) important to your diet than others. If you’re looking to lose weight, for example, Taub Dix explains, “Serving size is very important to help give you the frame of reference of what one portion will look like. If the calories says 300 on a label, and the serving size is 1/2 of a muffin, it may be a food to take a pass on if you’re looking for a satisfying snack.” The calories from the muffin would be less filing and less nutritionally valuable than, say, 150 calories from a satiating, whole-grain slice of bread, boasting other essential nutrients like amino acids and fiber. 

“Look at how calories relates to serving size and nutrient value. If, for example, the food is pretty high in calories and contains mostly sugar and fat on its ingredient list, then it may not be the healthiest food for you. If however, the fat in the food comes from [a whole-food source like] nuts, then look further and see what else is in the foods,” Taub-Dix continues. Which brings us to our next point… 

3. Don’t just look at one nutrient.

Labels like “fat-free” may make a product seem like it’s more healthy, but in reality, that may not be the case. As Taub-Dix suggests, “Proceed with caution when it comes to ‘free from’ foods. Items free from gluten or lactose say nothing about its calories, fat, or nutritional value. Here’s where ‘free’ could be costly if you don’t take a close look at the ingredient list.”

As we know, the question of whether fat — or any other essential nutrient, for that matter — is “bad” for you depends on your individual body and health. According to Taub-Dix, “If you have high blood pressure, sodium could make the difference between choosing one food and another. If you’re watching your weight, calories could welcome you to new products or discourage you from buying others. But it’s not just the calories, per se, you need to look at.” 

When it comes to healthy eating, there are more inconspicuous offenders you’ll want to be on the watch for when reading your food labels. A main culprit? Sugar.

4. Look out for hidden sugar.

Surprise! Artificial sugar — potentially one of the most harmful ingredients to any health goal — has more than one name, and the “total sugars” on a nutrition facts label are just the beginning when it comes to understanding how much sugar you’re getting from your food. “When food labels were established over 20 years ago (and even now, for the most part) they did not differentiate between natural and added sugars,” says Taub-Dix. “Natural sugars are those that are inherently within the food, such as the sugars in milk, yogurt, and fruit. Added sugars are those that are added by the manufacturer. Although this feature was supposed to appear on all labels by 2018, that deadline was extended to 2020. The good news is that many companies have already adopted some label changes and are separating out natural from added sugars on their food labels.”

So how do you spot added sugars on a food label? Well, not all sugar is actually spelled “s-u-g-a-r” on packaging. Added and refined sugars often go by other, lesser-known names. “Some examples include high fructose corn syrup, organic cane juice, maltose (and other words that end in -ose), just to name a few,” Taub-Dix says. “It’s also important to pay attention to where sugar — and its aliases —appear on the ingredient list. The higher to the beginning of the list, the greater the likelihood of sugar appearing in greater quantities within the food.”

5. You can ‘make the most of the middle.’

Good news: You don’t have to fear the middle aisles any longer! While many health gurus tout the old, “shop the perimeter of the store” mantra, Taub-Dix disagrees. “Don’t just shop the perimeter of the store. Instead, I like to say, ‘make the most of the middle,’ where you can find whole grains, nuts, beans, and other valuable foods,” she says. 

The trick to knowing which middle-aisle products are good for you is being able to understand what is actually in these foods. Taub Dix suggests, “Try to go for recognizable ingredients. It doesn’t matter if the ingredient list is long, so don’t believe that your list needs to contain only a handful of ingredients. But try to buy foods with ingredients you can understand, or look up those names you may not recognize. Just because you can’t pronounce it, doesn’t automatically make it harmful.”

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