LiveWell Northwest Colorado: Key to choosing healthier foods is reading the labels

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How overwhelmed do you feel as you try to choose the “healthiest” yogurt or select a loaf of “whole-grain” bread? One of the easiest tools that can be used to ensure a healthier diet is the Nutrition Facts label found on every product.

Understanding food labels is important to get a general idea of what’s in a food product, figuring out what counts as a serving, how many calories are in each serving and comparing products to choose the healthiest option.

LiveWell Northwest Colorado

This weekly column about health issues publishes on Mondays in the Steamboat Today. Read more columns here.

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Barb Parnell

A rule of thumb is the longer the list of ingredients, the more processed the food. Items in the list are ordered by weight, so if sugar is first, then the food contains a lot of it.

Avoid products that have added sugar at or near the top of the list — or have several sources of added sugars. Other names for added sugars include: sucrose, fructose, maltose, lactose honey, syrup, corn syrup, high-fructose corn syrup, molasses, evaporated cane juice, fruit juice concentrate, agave nectar, brown sugar, cane crystals, dextrose, malt syrup and glucose.

Here's a tip: Read Nutrition Facts on the product labels to make the healthiest selection.

• Check the serving size — usually found right under Nutrition Facts on the label. Is this the serving size that you typically eat?

• Figure out the calories in each package/can: Multiply the number of servings per container by the calories, and you will know how many calories you would eat if you ate the whole package or can.

• Select foods that have limited amounts of saturated fat (20 percent or less of daily calories and 0 transfat) and sodium (1:1 ratio of milligrams of sodium to calories in a serving).

• Look for foods that are good sources of nutrients such as fiber, vitamins and minerals.

• Compare similar foods and choose the healthiest option by checking the percent daily value for each nutrient. Aim for foods that provide the highest percent of nutrients.

Here are five ways product labels are written to entice you to buy the product:

1. Sugar free: A food is not calorie free just because the label says “sugar free." This really means that the food contains less than 0.5 grams of sugar per serving, but the serving size could be very small.

2. Low fat: This means a product may have 3 grams of fat or less per serving. Oftentimes, the fat in “low-fat” items has been replaced with sugar or sodium, so it may not be lower in calories.

3. Natural: There is no formal definition for natural. Sugar is natural. Unless the product has specific nutritional data, it is a marketing tool.

4. Whole grain: The term whole grain refers to flour that is made from all parts of the wheat grain kernel — the bran, germ and endosperm that contains vitamin B1, B2, B3, E folic acid, calcium, phosphorus, zinc, copper, iron and dietary fiber. Refined grain products such as wheat bread contain only the endosperm and do not have the nutrients that whole grain products have. Also, although multigrain bread sounds healthy, it has the same nutritional value as white bread unless it contains whole grains. Make sure to read the label and look for whole grains because most multigrain bread does not contain whole grains.

5. Green labels: Research indicates that people assume foods are healthier when the label is green. Also, watch for labels with “wholesome” pictures on them.

It doesn’t take long to choose healthier foods once you take the time on a few occasions to compare the labels of common products your family uses. A little time in the grocery store significantly can increase the health of you and your family in the long run.

Barb Parnell of LiveWell Northwest Colorado can be reached at livewellbparnell@gmail.com.

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