Trying to assess the health benefits of packaged foods based on their nutrition labels can be a daunting task. With deceptive terms for sugar, perplexing chemicals, and a multitude of ingredients, deciphering nutrition facts may seem as complex as decoding a cryptic book. However, understanding nutrition labels is crucial for making informed food choices. New guidelines from the FDA aim to simplify this process. The government now demands clear and prominent displays of calorie count, servings per container, and serving size. Additionally, the serving size information will represent a typical portion rather than just the suggested serving. Moreover, added sugars will be highlighted as a separate category, aiding consumers in making better decisions about their food intake.
Though these changes will greatly assist consumers, interpreting some of the information can still be challenging. Therefore, it’s essential to employ a few strategies that can help you navigate through the confusion and identify packaged foods that are beneficial for your health. Follow these six steps to simplify nutrition labels and make smart and healthy choices when shopping for groceries.
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How to Decipher Nutrition Labels: Six Steps to Follow
1. Understand the Ingredients
Start by thoroughly reading the ingredient list and ensure you can recognize and understand each item. According to Maxine Yeung, RD, NASM-CPT, and founder of The Wellness Whisk, a shorter ingredients list generally indicates a healthier product. Longer lists usually indicate the presence of additives, suggesting a less nutritious product.
2. Pay Attention to Ingredient Order
Manufacturers list ingredients from heaviest to lightest, offering insight into the composition of the product. For instance, if a bread product lists white flour before whole wheat flour, it implies that the bread is primarily made from refined carbohydrates. Opt for products with whole grains listed higher up.
3. Check the Serving Size
Ensure you pay attention to the serving size, as a package that appears to contain a single serving may actually amount to multiple servings. This can lead to unintentional consumption of more calories, fats, salt, and sugars than intended.
4. Focus on Personal Needs
Focus on the ingredients that have the most impact on your personal health. For example, if you have blood pressure concerns, pay particular attention to salt content. If you’re monitoring your blood sugar levels, evaluate the total carbohydrates and added sugars. Tailor your assessment based on your specific health goals.
5. Identify Fat and Sugar Sources
Take note of where fats and sugars come from in the product. Aim to consume the majority of fats from monounsaturated and polyunsaturated sources, while limiting saturated and trans fats. Limit added sugars and prioritize natural sources of sugars, which come with added nutrients.
6. Be Cautious with Front-Label Claims
While front-label claims can help narrow down options, they can also be misleading. Reduced fat, sugar, or salt products may compensate with higher levels of other nutrients to improve flavor. Be aware that “reduced” does not mean “low.” Understand the true impact of these claims on the product’s nutritional value.
Deciphering nutrition labels is a critical skill for making informed food choices. By following these strategies, you can effectively analyze nutrition facts and make conscious decisions about the foods you consume. Remember, the most nutrient-rich foods often do not require labels.
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