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Understanding Labels

By Dr. Mark Hyman

"If it has a label don't eat it," is what I preach. However, there are some exceptions. But think about this: If there is a health food section in the grocery store, what does that make the rest of the food sold there? The general rule: If it has any ingredients you don't recognize or pronounce, put the item down. Be a smart label reader. Labels contain both the ingredients and specific (but not all) nutrition information. Here are keys to know about contents listed on labels included on packaged foods.

Beware of marketing. Remember, the front of the label is food marketing at its cleverest. It is designed to seduce you into an emotional purchase and may contain exaggerated claims. Anything with a health claim is almost guaranteed to be bad for you—diet this or low-fat that or trans fat free or low calorie or cholesterol lowering. Look for quality ingredients. Organic whole foods are now available in packages, cans and boxes.

Where is the ingredient on the list? Ingredients are listed in descending order by proportion or quantity. If the real food is at the end of the list and the sugars or salt is at the beginning of the list, beware. Think five or less. If it is a real food product, it usually has less than five ingredients. Some newer healthier products contain more, but they are all real food.

Beware of ingredients not on the list. Foods that are exempt from labels include foods in very small packages, foods prepared in the store, and foods made by small manufacturers.

Look for additives or problem ingredients. If it has high fructose corn syrup, hydrogenated, or partially hydrogenated oils, put it back on the shelf. Search for any "suspect" additives.

Look for ingredients that don't agree with you. Identify food ingredients you are sensitive or react to, such as gluten, eggs, dairy, tree nuts, or peanuts. Be vigilant about reading labels, as these ingredients are often "hidden" in foods you least suspect. The labeling of common allergens is not always clear or helpful and there have been recent recommendations to improve this for consumers as in the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act 2004. (See www.celiac.com for lists of gluten containing foods.)

Would your great-grandmother have served this food? Finally, before you analyze the numbers, ask yourself if this food could have been served at your great-grandmother's table. She only served real food.

UNDERSTAND THE NUTRITION LABEL

Think Low GL (glycemic load) and High PI (phytonutrient index)

  • Glycemic Load or GL is a measure of how quickly a food enters your blood stream and low GL means better health
  • Phytonutrient index or PI means the amount of colorful plant pigments and compounds in food that help prevent disease and promote health

Look at the serving size and determine if this is your "typical" portion as labels can be deceiving. For example, a cereal may state 3/4 cup serving when your typical portion is 1 1/2 cups. Or worse, it may say 2 servings, when typically people consume the whole amount in the container or bottle. Have you ever known 4 people to share one pint of Hagen Daaz ice cream? The calorie count is per serving, so multiply the serving size by calorie count to get the true amount you are eating.

Are the calories high GL or low GL? Remember, the total amount of carbohydrates is less important than where they come from. If they are found in foods with a low GL and high PI they will have a very different affect on your appetite and weight than foods that are quickly absorbed and have few nutrients and fiber.

Start with fiber. It is one of the main factors that determine the all-important glycemic load; fiber can give you a clue about the PI. Many packaged foods have no fiber. If convenience items such as soups, entrees, or snacks are missing this key fiber factor, leave them on the shelf.

Total carbohydrates. Remember that it's the type of carbohydrates that matters most. If they are from whole, plant foods containing plenty of fiber or have a low GL, their effect is very different from fiber-less foods. The same amount of carbohydrates from a can of beans or from a can of Coke affects the body in very different ways. Look for total carbohydrates and carbohydrates from sugar. It should have less than 10 grams or consider it dessert. More than 5 grams of fiber is good, and more than 10 grams of protein is also good.

Where are the good fats? Monounsaturated and omega 3 polyunsaturated fats should dominate this category, with minimal amounts of saturated fat and zero trans fats (present on foods labels since2006). Beware that small amounts of trans fat are STILL permitted in the food as long as it is less then 0.5 grams per serving. But if you eat that food frequently or more than one serving (which is usually the case), you may get a load of trans fats. Therefore look carefully at the label even if it says "zero trans fats" and look for the word hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated. If you see those words put it back on the shelf. Unfortunately the omega 3 fats are rarely listed on the label. They are part of the polyunsaturated fat family. But they come from the good side of the family. Other processed and refined oils that are less than healthful also show up in this section of the label including corn oil and safflower oil.

NOW FOR THE "NUTRITION FACTS" ON THE LABEL

Cholesterol. Your body (liver) makes more cholesterol in an hour than you ever eat in a day. As you have learned, more of the cholesterol comes from eating sugar than eating fat. There is little correlation between dietary cholesterol and blood cholesterol, and little reason to worry about this number on food labels.

Protein. If you eat a variety of whole foods you won't have to worry about protein because whole foods such as beans, soy foods, nuts, seeds, whole grains and lean animal foods contain plenty of protein.

Sodium. Use caution with sodium levels, especially in broths and condiments. Compare labels and brands, and choose wisely. If you are sodium sensitive, use this simple guideline: Double the calories to get an accurate estimate of how much sodium should be in the serving (for example 150 calories per serving, maximum sodium per serving 300 mg). There's an exception: very low calorie foods, such as some vegetables without added salt. Many processed foods have far more sodium than this. You will need to prepare fresh foods at home to recondition your palate to whole foods naturally low in sodium. The recommended daily intake for the average person is 1500 mg, or less than the amount in 1 teaspoon of salt (2400 mg). That includes salt added at the table, in cooking at the factory or in a fast food kitchen (which is where most of our salt intake comes from – hidden in the processed and fast foods we consume such as packaged meats, canned soup, and even cottage cheese!) We should consume about 10 times the amount of potassium (in foods such as bananas, potatoes, spinach, and almonds) as sodium in our diet (mostly from plant foods), and we do just the inverse – eat 10 times as much salt or sodium as potassium.

Calcium. Add a zero to the calcium % on the label and this equals milligrams calcium per serving because the % Daily Value for calcium is based on 1000 mg. For example: 2% = 20 mg. calcium or 30% = 300 mg. Remember that calcium is the only nutrient to which this rule pertains.

Other nutrients: B-12, iron, zinc and other nutrients may have been added to the food product to enhance nutrient levels and will be listed on the label if the product was "fortified."