It’s important to know what you’re feeding your family, and making informed food choices is a great way to work towards a healthier family. In order to be an informed consumer, it is vital to read labels, not relying solely on the front packaging for nutrition information.
Informed Food Choices 101
The front of a package will display the highlights – they are trying to sell you something. Check out this label:
Man, this must be one of the healthiest products out there! Any guesses on what this package might contain?
Let’s break down these nutrition claims as an Informed Consumer:
- “Natural” – Unlike “organic” (see next week’s article), there is no legal definition on what products can use the term natural. Since there is no legal definition, this essentially has no meaning.
- “Fat-Free” – Like we talked about here, fat certainly isn’t a bad thing. We need it to live. But it sure sounds good to buy a product that is “fat free”, right? Of course, we shouldn’t get all of our calories from fat, and many healthful foods, like (most) fruits and vegetables, lean meats, beans, and low-/fat-free dairy are lower in/free of fat, but if you see “fat-free” on your favorite processed snack good, it usually means that they replaced fat with excess sugar and fillers. Essentially, “fat-free” doesn’t always equal “healthy”.
- “0g Trans Fat” – This would be the one claim on here that I wouldn’t consider a gimmick. Trans fats are pretty nasty things – man-made to extend shelf life, they raise your bad cholesterol, while lowering your good.
- “Gluten-free” – Gluten is simply a protein found in wheat, rye, and barley. Gluten-free is certainly a trend right now, and while there, of course, are people who have a medical need for a diet free of gluten (celiac disease, etc…), the food marketers love using this buzz word to make people think that their foods are healthier than they really are.
Informed Choice: Consider, “Does this product naturally contain fat (or should it contain fat)? If so, how was it made fat-free?”
Informed Choice: “Do I have a medical need for a gluten-free diet? Are gluten-free alternatives lower in added salt/fat/sugar? What is the benefit of buying the gluten-free version?”
Let’s try another one: We always hear about how we should try to get whole grains in our diet. They’re higher in fiber, vitamins, and minerals than their refined (read: white) counterparts. So, how do we know if we’re getting whole grains? Read the label of course! What do you think about these crackers?
If you check out the ingredient label for these two items, you’ll see that “unbleached enriched flour” is the first ingredient for both. (Enriched = white flour) Not exactly the wholesome snack you were envisioning feeding your family. Whole grain wheat flour is the second ingredient. (Ingredients are listed in the order of the amount used.) However, if we were to keep reading, the Ritz crackers also contain partially hydrogenated cottonseed oil, which is a red flag for trans fats.
Seeing a product labeled as “honey wheat” or simply “wheat” can also be misleading. Most breads and other traditional baked goods (crackers, cakes, cookies, etc…) are made with wheat flour (although that is changing with the variety of gluten-free options available), but that doesn’t mean WHOLE WHEAT.
Multi-grain is another buzzword that can make consumers think of a product as healthful, but multi-grain is just what it sounds like: the product is made from multiple grains. Unless the ingredient label specifically states “whole grain”, assume that all of the grains in a multi-grain product are refined grains.
Informed Choice: Look for 100% whole grain as the first ingredient.
Sodium is another area where marketers like to twist things around: How many Mamas would say that sea salt is a lower-sodium alternative to table salt? The actual difference is minuscule – not enough to make a difference in your total sodium intake, in most cases. Excessive sodium intake can impact blood pressure and cause bloating due to water retention.
Informed Choice: Choose products with less than 140 milligrams of sodium per serving (low-sodium foods) whenever possible, regardless of the source of sodium.
Be an informed consumer to make healthy food choices for your family. Choose real foods (think – which food group do they belong to?): lots of veggies, fruits, lean meats, whole grains, and low-fat dairy. Limit the salt and added sugar. If a food doesn’t belong to any of the food groups, I certainly won’t tell you never to eat it, but realize that it should probably only be a “sometimes” food. Most importantly, look past the marketing. This can be so difficult, but can have a great health payoff for your and your little ones!