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Comcast Passion for Health: Label Reading

I recently had the pleasure of being interviewed for a Healthy Living segment for Comcast Channel 8 in Putnam County, NY. If you tuned in then you already know all about label reading. If you missed it, I review all of the details here…and we’ll make sure you know when the next one airs!

Most of us are in a rush when we are shopping and have little time for label reading. Why is it is important?

The answer is simple- it is the only way to know just what you are eating.  It is absolutely critical when we are eating foods composed of more than one ingredient. The information located on a food label is essential for knowing how a food “fits” into your day and how it is either going to benefit you…or not.

What is the first thing you should look for on a food label?

The very first thing we want to look for on a food label is the serving size- if not then we don’t know what we are working with. This is especially important when foods are packaged to look like one serving…but aren’t. It is also very important for seasonings, marinades or sauces that are often high in sodium.

After we note the portion size, we can scan the label to see if the food is composed of the other nutrients we need or are hoping to get from that food. For example, if you are looking at a label for whole wheat bread you want to check on the fiber and protein content per slice and possibly use that to compare breads and select the one you want.  Of course, if you have specific dietary needs, such as following a low sodium diet, then the sodium amount in each slice may be your first concern.

Speaking of sodium. How do you know if a food has too much?

If you look at the label you will notice that information is given in grams or mg and also a Percent Daily Value (%DV). The Daily Value refers to the amount we should have in a day of that nutrient based on a 2000 calorie diet. Use the %DV to know if a serving of a food is too high in sodium. For example if it is going to add 25% of your sodium for the day and it is for a tsp of sauce then you need to consider if that is the best choice for you. Something important to note: if your doctor has put you on a low sodium diet, then the percent DV may not be as helpful as the milligrams as you will probably be trying to stay around 1500-1800mg of sodium a day.

I notice that the daily value is given for most of the nutrients on the label. Is this a tool we should all use to make sure we don’t overdo it?

As I mentioned, the DV is based on a 2000 calorie diet. While this may work for those who can consume 2000 calories a day, many of us don’t need this many daily calories. So while the DV may be helpful for monitoring our intake of sodium, saturated fat and unhealthful attributes of a food, it isn’t the best tool for our macronutrients such as protein, carbohydrate and total fat or even calories. That said, it is a good tool for the vitamins listed as these are based on the recommended daily intake for these vitamins and minerals.

What is the one thing we all want to look for to make sure we are making a good choice?

We should all be consuming foods with zero grams of trans fat and as little saturated fat as possible. Regardless of our personal risk of heart disease these are fats that none of us should be consuming.

Sometimes we don’t have time to read the label at the store. What do you recommend?

There are a few ways to handle this.

1. While I encourage trying new foods, when you are in a rush it may be best to stick with the foods that you have already screened and save the new foods for a time when you can read. Or if you are home when you see a commercial for a new food or hear about it on a program, visit the website for the product and read the label before you even get to the store.

2. The Facts Up Front campaign may be helpful as well. This program puts some of the facts of a product on the front of the box so that it is easy to compare products on the shelf.

3. Shelf tag systems are also gaining popularity. Many supermarkets are using signage and other “call outs” to let you know if a food is a good choice for you. This is very interesting space to watch as the FDA is currently evaluating the many systems out there to create one national system. In the mean time, next time you are at your local market, look for signs or symbols that may be there to help with your healthful shopping.

 The FDA is also looking at changing the food label right?

Yes…in 2015 we may see a new food label that is clearer to understand and use. Some of the changes being considered are to make the calories line much bigger, to change the serving size to a realistic size that matches what a person might actually eat and may address current thinking about appropriate DV for sodium.