Dietary self-defense: 5 tips for avoiding popular food label traps

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Food labels: More than meets the eye

Confused about calorie counts? Don’t know the difference between “low-fat” and “reduced fat” when it comes to your favorite foods?

You’re not alone.

In an online survey of more than 25,000 respondents in 56 countries, market research firm Nielsen found that 59 percent of consumers admitted they have difficulty deciphering nutritional labels on food packaging.

Another 78 percent also said they’re trying to lose weight through dietary changes – which begs the question: How can we be effective at doing that if we’re not really sure what we’re eating?

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The fact is, most people don’t understand enough about what’s on food labels to make an informed choice about what’s best for them.

So next time you find yourself strolling the aisles, cut through the confusion by familiarizing yourself with the five most common tricks when it comes to food labeling:

1. Serving Size.

Although the numbers are based on a single serving, the package may contain several. Do the math and make sure to multiply accordingly – it adds up.

2. Calorie Count. 

When it comes to numbers, think quality over quantity. Some healthy foods are higher in calories (likewise, there are unhealthy foods that are low in calories but high in sodium or sugar), so it’s important to factor in nutrient density when making meal choices.

3. Ingredient List.

Say the first ingredient listed in chocolate cake is enriched bleached flour. Sounds healthy enough, right? Wrong. Even though ingredients are listed in order of descending amounts, some items are used in several forms (e.g. sugar) and listed under various names (i.e. corn syrup, fructose, juice concentrate), so be sure to add ’em up to determine true amounts.

4. Percentages.

Here’s where food makers deploy another trick of the trade. Take two percent milk, for example; we assume it’s 98 percent fat-free, but what it actually means is that two percent of the weight of the milk is fat (whole milk is four percent, FYI).

So while two percent is reduced, it’s not low – in fact, about 30 percent of the calories in a cup of two percent milk come from fat. The same applies to ground meats, so when in doubt, buy skim and go for the highest percentage of lean you can find.

5. Terminology.

Think “reduced” and “low” are the same thing? Think again. A food that says reduced simply means it contains at least 25 percent less of something.

Soy sauce, for example, may contain less sodium than the original version, but that doesn’t mean it’s “low” in sodium (in fact, one tablespoon packs about 700 milligrams, closing in on your daily cap of 1,500 to 2,300 milligrams). When in doubt, check labels and compare against dietary guidelines to determine whether or not the label is misleading.

Want a good laugh on the subject? Check out comedian Brian Regan‘s bit about food labels here.

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