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You’ve got all the best intentions to fill your cart with healthy foods, but somehow it seems you still manage to bring home some real nutrition duds. Decoding the lingo on food labels can be a daunting task – how can you make sure that what seems nutritious is indeed a smart choice?
Though each section in the grocery store presents a different challenge, there are a couple of constants that apply to most food labels. First, choose products that are not only trans fat free, but also don’t list hydrogenated oil among the ingredients. And watch out for sodium – especially in frozen meals, convenience “instant” foods, and sauces. Aim to keep the sodium at or below 480 milligrams per serving.
Take a tour through the aisles with us as we suggest hints for using food labels to guide your grocery shopping:
It doesn’t take an expert to tell you that fat free dairy choices are some of the best – they contain all of the good stuff (like calcium) while saving you from some fat. But if fat free doesn’t fit your palate, stick to yogurt, cheese, and milk with 3 or less grams of total fat, and less than 1 gram of saturated fat per serving.
Lean meat, like top round roast and sirloin tip side steak (beef) and tenderloin (pork) make versatile, smart choices. Poultry is also a winner, provided you use white meat cuts and cook it without the skin. If your butcher prints a label for your meats, look for products that have less than 5 grams of total fat, and less than 2 grams of saturated fat per serving.
Making a nutritious choice when it comes to bread has become a challenge with so many healthy-sounding choices crowding shelves. The key to simplifying your task is to choose breads that list a “whole” grain as the first ingredient on the food label, and have at least 3 grams of fiber per serving
Cereals and Starches
Just as in the bread aisle, seek the products that list a whole grain among the first ingredients on the food label. Cereals should have less than 5 grams of sugar per serving, and brown rice instead of white rice makes a better choice since it’s a high fiber whole grain. Other whole grains that are great to try on their own include oats, quinoa, popcorn, and bulgur.
Fruits and Veggies
Fresh produce is a no-brainer: you can’t go wrong with any choice you make, so stock up. But canned produce is a bit trickier. Make sure you’re picking up “lite” or “juice packed” canned fruit, and if you’re buying juice, it should clearly state “100% juice” on the food label. For canned veggies, keep sodium under wraps by buying no-salt-added products, and giving them a quick rinse before using them if possible. Frozen fruits and veggies are also stellar choices, since they are flash frozen directly after harvest, and unseasoned products lack the added sodium and sugar of their canned counterparts.
The Bottom Line
The best choices in the grocery store are low in fat, sodium, and calories, and high in fiber and nutrients. Taking time to read the food labels of the groceries you toss in your cart will ensure that what you buy is a healthy investment!
Beth Sumrell Ehrensberger is a Registered Dietitian and holds a Master Degree in Public Health. An experienced nutrition counselor, writer and public speaker, Beth specializes in translating complex nutrition information into practical concepts. Beth was awarded a Nutrition Communications Fellowship to the National Cancer Institute, and has worked on the internationally recognized Nutrition Action Healthletter of the Center for Science in the Public Interest.