Saturday, May 30, 2009

Strategies for Reading Food Labels

The following is a list of suggestions for reading ingredients labels. To get a better idea of what you're buying at the grocery store, check every item before placing it in your cart or basket. If it doesn't meet your criteria, consider finding an alternative. If your supermarket doesn't carry the food you want to buy, it may be time to look for one that offers a healthier selection.

* Remember that ingredients are listed in the order of quantity present. The first few ingredients on the list are present in the greatest quantity.

* Check to make sure that the first few ingredients are the ones you would hope to find in this type of product. For example, on a grape juice label you expect to see grape juice listed first. If, instead, you see corn syrup, high fructose corn syrup, fruit pectin and then grape juice concentrate, you know that this product is less nutritious than a product made of 100% grape juice.

* Beware of misleading food groupings. For instance, breakfast cereal manufacturers often group flour ingredients together so that sugar will not appear as the first ingredient. A label of this type might list the first two ingredients as flour (corn, wheat, and oat), and then sugar. If the flours had not been grouped together, sugar would have been listed as the first ingredient.

* Beware of products that contain multiple sweeteners. A product may contain, for example, sugar, high fructose corn syrup, corn syrup, and dextrose. Although sugar does not appear first on the list, when added together, the total sugar is present in the greatest quantity.

* When evaluating foods, think twice about purchasing products with the following red flag warnings on the label.

--The ingredients list seems long compared to what you’d expect to find in a particular product.

--The ingredients are unrecognizable and hard to pronounce.

--The product contains FD&C artificial colorings.

--The product contains hydrogenated or partially-hydrogenated oil.

--One of the first few ingredients listed is sugar (or other sweeteners such as high fructose corn syrup, corn sweetener, fructose, fruit juice concentrate, granular fruit sugar, sucrose, lactose, isomol, malitol, mannitol, sorbitol, maltose, xylitol, malt, honey, maple sugar, maple syrup, molasses, or rice syrup).

--The product contains the artificial sweeteners aspartame or saccharin.

--The product contains modified food starch, which is often used as an inexpensive filler.

--The product contains a large amount of salt. The human body needs no more than ¼ teaspoon of salt daily. Try to limit intake to 2,400 mg (1 teaspoon) of total sodium daily.

(Excerpted from: The Laptop Lunch User's Guide: Fresh Ideas for Making Wholesome, Earth-friendly Lunches Your Kids Will Love, by Amy Hemmert & Tammy Pelstring, Morning Run Press, 2002. Available online at

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