On the Table

Read labels when you shop

October 16, 2012 

YOGURT DISPUTE

A paper published last month in the journal Agricultural Economics reported that people who read food labels when they shop weigh less than those who do not.

DAWN VILLELLA — ASSOCIATED PRESS

Look before you eat.

There’s new evidence that reading food labels is good for you. A paper published last month in the journal Agricultural Economics reported that people who read food labels when they shop weigh less than those who do not.

That’s especially true for women. Women who read food labels weighed nearly nine pounds less than those who didn’t look at the labels before putting foods in their carts.

The study was based on more than 25,000 participants in the U.S. National Health Interview Survey, conducted for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention since 1957.

It’s smart to pay attention to what you eat at the point of purchase. But that doesn’t mean you have to study labels so long that your frozen foods melt.

You can see what you need to know by doing a quick scan. A half dozen or so of the label “hot spots” should be all that’s required.

Focus on these features of the nutrition facts label:

• Calories per serving. What you need is two-fold: Total number of calories and portion size. The information is in two different spots on the label.

You need to think about whether the portion listed is a realistic amount to eat in one sitting. If you would eat twice as much, double the calorie estimate.

• Dietary fiber. The more the better. Fiber-rich foods such as fruits and vegetables are relatively low in calories or nutrient-dense, such as acorn squash or black beans.

• Saturated fat. Go as low as you can. Foods that are high in saturated fat tend to be higher in calories.

Other label hot spots have more to do with overall good nutrition than simply cutting calories. Sodium is one example. Go low because it’s generally better for your health.

Ditto for added sugar. Be aware that on the nutrition labels, added sugars are combined with naturally occurring sugars. So you have to look for added sugars in the ingredient list.

Pay attention to its place on the list. Ingredients are listed in their order of predominance, so whatever is listed first or second likely makes up the majority of the product.

That’s good if it’s whole grain flour, not good if it’s sugar.

Scrutinize food labels while you shop. Over the long run, the health of you and your family may benefit.

Suzanne Havala Hobbs is a registered dietitian and clinical associate professor in the departments of Health Policy and Management and Nutrition in the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health. Send questions and comments to suzanne@onthetable.net.

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