Do you need a short course in how to read food labels? Any food with the word “healthy” in its title, such as Healthy Choice frozen entrees, or that has the American Heart Association’s Heart Check Mark somewhere on the label, must meet strict standards for saturated fat, sodium, and calories. Beyond that, here is an at-a-glance guide to the 6 most important words or phrases to look for on a food label.
1. Servings Per Container: This might seem obvious, but drink the whole bottle of sweetened iced tea and you’ve wolfed down the calorie-equivalent of an order of hashbrowns. Also, check the serving size, since one brand of cookies might be lower in calories only because there are two, rather than three, per serving.
2. Total Fat: Choose foods with no more than 3 grams total fat for every 100 calories. For example, a serving of canned chili with 350 calories should have no more than ~ 11 grams of total fat.
3. Saturated fat: Look for items that have no more than 1 gram of saturated fat or less for every 100 calories. A frozen entree that contains 280 calories should have less than 3 grams of saturated fat.
4. Sodium: Many packaged foods are sodium land mines, supplying half – or perhaps all – of your entire day’s maximum limit for sodium of 2,300 milligrams. Look for items that contain no more than 200 milligrams of sodium for every 100 calories.
5. Sugar: Labels are not required to distinguish between the added and the naturally occurring sugars, so you must dig a little deeper here. Read the ingredients list. By law, a food’s contents must be listed on the label in descending order from most to least. The nearer to the top of the list, the more of an ingredient is in the food. Skip any food that contains sugar (or any of its aliases) in the top three ingredients or that contains several mentions of sugar throughout the list. Also, don’t assume “natural sweeteners,” such as concentrated pear, white grape, or apple juice, are better for you. They are merely sugar water in disguise.
6. Whole Grains: Unless a bread or cereal says 100% whole grain, it is probably processed carbs with a dusting of whole grain. Also, check the ingredient list. Only whole grains should be in the top ingredients, such as whole wheat, oats, barley, brown rice, or quinoa (in contrast, pearl barley, couscous, pumpernickel or rye breads, cornmeal, or wheat, enriched, or refined flours are typically refined grains). Under Nutrition Facts, look for grains with at least 5 grams of fiber per serving for cereals and 2 grams of fiber per slice of bread or half-cup serving of rice, pasta, or other packaged grains.