How to be cart-smart and read between the lines of a food label.
In this second part of our three-part interview with Ruby Schuler, RD, registered dietitian at Queen of the Valley Wellness Center, we learn how to resist clever marketing and read between the lines of a food label. Read part 1 of the interview or jump to part 3.
Q. Can you tell us more about grocery store psychology and how you recommend navigating the aisles?
A. Most grocery stores welcome you with delicious scents from baked goods, floral arrangements near the entrance, and candies near the cash register. This is done purposefully to encourage unplanned and spontaneous purchases, which is why shopping with a list is so important. In addition to sticking to your carefully planned list, I recommend thinking about how many steps it took for the food to get from farm to plate. Less-processed foods tend to be better for you because they are fresher and contain fewer artificial ingredients; conversely, ready-to-eat foods have to go through more steps to get on the shelf. For example, steel cut oats (not instant) are made from chopped oat kernels and nothing more; but a typical children’s breakfast cereal is highly processed and full of added sugar, artificial colors and preservatives. An apple is about as unprocessed as you can get—in contrast, a fruit roll-up goes through a factory where they strip out the dietary fiber and add fruit concentrate, sugars, artificial flavors and other ingredients. Unsurprisingly, the apple is better for you. Try to make a habit of filling your cart with primarily fresh ingredients.
DId you know eating large quantities of processed meat may increase your long-term risk of cancer? Swap the hot dogs and salami for less-processed, protein-based foods.
Q. Is it important to read nutrition labels?
A. Absolutely. In fact, if you can only keep one tip in mind when you go grocery shopping, make sure you investigate nutrition labels instead of relying on the packaging alone. Products like to promote words such as ‘natural’ or ‘organic’ on the front panel; however, that doesn’t change what’s in the product. These buzz words don’t necessarily mean the product contains less sugar or healthier ingredients.
Q. What should I look for when reading nutrition fact labels?
A. Good question – this is a big one for me. The first thing you need to look at is the serving size. It’s usually listed at the top of the label. In some cases, the serving size has been manipulated to an amount that makes the other numbers look good. For example, cereals with a recommended serving size of 1 cup are extremely unrealistic; however, it makes the calorie, sugar and sodium content look manageable. If you were to eat a normal sized portion of these cereals, the counts can easily double or triple and become pretty scary numbers. You could be putting yourself at increased future risk of diabetes or heart disease and not even know it.
Q. What is the recommended daily value of sugar?
A. That is a really good question, and there is a new nutrition facts label that was scheduled for implementation in July 2018, but it has been delayed indefinitely by the FDA. If implemented, the new labels will separately list the amounts of both natural and added sugars, an important distinction that isn't made now. In general, try to choose foods where the added sugars don't exceed the natural sugars. Foods with added sugars tend to be less nutritious overall, while foods with natural sugars--like milk and fruit--are more likely to contain other vital nutrients like protein and vitamins. Cookies, candy and sugary drinks tend not have much in the way of those other nutrients. In the meantime, the American Heart Association recommends no more than 36 grams of added sugar per day for men or 25 grams of added sugar per day for women. To put that into perspective, men should limit their sugar intake to 9 teaspoons per day or less and women, 6 teaspoons per day or less.
The first ingredient in the list means the product is made of mostly that ingredient, so it’s important to watch for words like high fructose corn syrup, sucrose, fructose and dextrose, among others. If you see any of these words listed as one of the first four ingredients, there is usually a better, lower-sugar alternative. Many people believe honey is a healthy alternative, but sugar is sugar, as far as your body is concerned. Since there are three teaspoons in one tablespoon, consuming one tablespoon of honey a day is one-third of your recommended limit of added sugar if you're a man, and one-half of your recommended limit if you're a woman. So, it's still very easy to eat too much sugar, even it's honey.
Q. What are some foods that you wouldn’t expect to have high levels of sugar?
A. A good rule of thumb for me is: if it looks like a candy bar, it’s a candy bar. Energy bars and granola bars are the biggest offenders when it comes to foods being marketed as healthy snacks. In reality, sugar is one of the first ingredients. When you shop for healthy snacks, choose whole grain options and look at nutrition labels to find something with less than 10 grams of sugar per bar.
Q. What is the difference between whole grains and whole wheat?
A. It’s important to know that enriched unbleached wheat flour is not the same as whole grain flour. The main difference is in how the flour is processed. Refined flour is milled, which means it gets stripped of its B vitamins and iron. Whole grain flour, on the other hand, is made from the entire grain kernel. Multigrain breads are usually whole grains, but double-check the label to be sure – you want the words ‘whole grain’ to be first on the ingredient list.
Our doctors and registered dietitians can help you build healthy grocery shopping and eating habits as part of a personalized preventive health plan. Find a primary care physician in your area.
This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your health care professional's instructions.