Five Mistakes When Reading Food Labels

Debbie Melvin  |  7/30/2010 2:06:29 AM

I’ve been accused of spending way too much time in the grocery store. But it’s usually because it has become a meeting place of friends and acquaintances that I don’t get to see very often. My father-in-law used to say that he was going to have the mail delivered there, since my mother-in-law seemed to be shopping more than she was home. I’m sure she did her share of visiting, but I also know she was an avid label-reader.

Some common mistakes I hear people make include the following:

  • Simply ignore the labels. We really should know what we are eating and care about what it can or cannot do to our bodies.
  • Not realizing the serving size does not always mean the entire package. Remember when you look at the label, note the serving size and how many servings are in the container. If you decide to eat two cups of ice cream, you’ll have to quadruple the nutrition facts, including the calories, because the label information is for ½ cup.
  • Sugar-free or fat-free is calorie-free. It's not! Read the label for fat and carbohydrate content. But what if one is adapting a recipe prepared with substitutions for the usual high-calorie ingredients? Well, if you enjoy it just as much as the high-calorie version, eating the same amount you usually do would still save calories.
  • The package sounds healthier that the facts. In small print, a label can say "made with" whole grain, and you mistakenly believe it IS whole grain. Look again at the ingredients. Whole grain should be the first ingredient. All the pictures, claims and fancy print are just advertising. Don’t let the marketing geniuses fool you. Look at the Nutrition Facts and the ingredients.
  • Not knowing your limits. People look at the calories, fat and sodium content of an item, and they ask, “Is that a lot?” If your daily goal is 2000 calories, 65 grams of fat, and less than 2400 mg of sodium, and that fast food meal has 1200 calories, 48 grams of fat and 2000 mg of sodium, that’s a lot since it’s only one of your meals for the day. Most labels will list what your recommended daily limits should be for a 2000 calorie diet. If you eat fewer calories, the fat grams are fewer in order to keep your total for the day at no more than 30% of calories as fat, but the sodium limits are the same for everyone, unless you are hypertensive.
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