Detailed nutrition labels are supposed to make it easier for you to select healthy foods. But sometimes they cause information overload – and confusion. Is it more important that something has fewer overall grams (g) of fat or fewer trans fats? Are you better off getting fewer calories even if it means getting fewer nutrients? Here are some tips for deciphering nutrition label information.
Focus on the fats. Look for products with less than 1 g of saturated fat and no trans fat, says registered dietitian Jennifer Vimbor with Nutrition Counseling Services in New York. “If you’re looking to lose weight, look for foods that are low in fat overall – meaning they have less than 3 g per serving,” she says.
Fill up on fiber. Preliminary research indicates that a high-fiber diet (more than 25 g per day) lowers cholesterol and helps prevent diabetes. A “high-fiber” food has at least 5 g of fiber per serving.
Watch serving sizes relative to calorie count. You should also look at how the manufacturer’s idea of a serving size compares to what you typically eat. “If you eat two times the amount in a serving size, then you will get twice the amount of fat and calories listed,” says registered dietitian Tanya Horacek, an associate professor at Syracuse University in New York.
Skimp on sodium. A high-sodium diet, like a high-fat diet, puts you at risk for high blood pressure. Experts recommend keeping your total sodium intake at less than 2,400 milligrams (mg) per day.
Skim the ingredients. The main ingredients are listed first on a nutrition label, so check out the top three or four. And remember that some ingredients can sneak in under different names. If sugar, molasses, honey, turbinado, maple syrup or high-fructose corn syrup are near the top, you’re getting a lot of sugar, says Vimbor.
Look for must-have nutrients. Horacek specifically recommends calcium, vitamin D and omega-3 fatty acids, which are found in fish and flaxseed oil. Consider foods high in antioxidants, such as vitamins C and A, which are believed to have anti-inflammatory properties.
Now that you’re savvy about nutrition label information, you can grocery shop with a more discerning eye.