Healthy Minds and Bodies Recap – Food labeling

This month’s meeting was one of our best. Although our numbers were few, I thought the topic was very compelling and enjoyable.

Granted, I chose the topic and led the discussion so I’m more than a bit biased. 😉

The Treats

I have to take a minute here and apologize publicly for the treats. I was really excited to demo my favorite new snack, but Mackenzie started to get fussy at the end of the meeting so the demo was hasty and I just had everyone try one from a batch I had made previously. After everyone left and I had fed Mackenzie, I tasted one of the treats I had fed my unsuspecting friends.

Dry, very dry.

I had inadvertently handed out the results of a failed batch made while I was still tweaking the recipe. Ugh. Ladies – if you want to give them another try, just knock on my door. 🙂

Click here for my post on how to make these Balls of Yum.

(I’m still trying to decide on a good name for them. I prefer Balls of Yum to “date nut balls” because really, date nut balls sound gross. Even though these ARE date nut balls and they are delicious. Any ideas? )

The Discussion

The goal of the meeting was to learn more about food labeling and regulations so that we can become more educated consumers and make better choices at the grocery store.

Basically, when you see things on packages like “Wholesome” or “Lightly salted” or “Good source of Vitamin C”… what (if anything) do those things mean? And what about the Nutritional Facts on the back? Which numbers are important?

First, my best advice: Buy whole plant foods. Grapes don’t need compelling claims on their label and there’s no need to check their ingredient list. Ditto for carrots, apples, parsnips, etc. They are “no-brainers” labeling-wise and also health-wise.

If you do decide to brave the grocery store outside the produce section, here are 5 things to keep in mind. I pulled heavily from a presentation at the Healthy Lifestyle Expo 2007 by Jeff Novick MS, RD, LV/N . He was a really entertaining presenter and knew his stuff. If anyone wants to borrow the DVD, just holler!

The front of the package

1) Never ever believe anything on the front of any package. Ever. Instead, flip the package over and look at the Nutrition Facts and Ingredients list.


2) There are different recommendations for the percent calories from fat you should get in your diet. Some people say 30%, others 10% or less. The national guidelines say “less than 30%”. The problem, however, is that you won’t find this in the Nutrition Facts. Instead, you’ll see grams of fat, % RDA of fat, and calories from fat. Very unhelpful.

Here’s what to do: Look for the calories from fat and compare them to the total calories. If the calories from fat are more than 20% of the total calories, consider that the food is high in fat.

Note: Walnuts are high in fat. Does that mean they aren’t good for you? No. Fat is not inherently bad. But fat from added oils and butter, etc. is probably best avoided. Taking a quick peek at the percent calories from fat will give you a good idea if that salad dressing, cracker, cookie, potato chip, etc. is high in fat.

Also look at the ingredients list for sources of “bad” fat: lard, partially hydrogenated vegetable oil, palm oil, shortening, etc.

So, if you were given to internal dialog, you might glance at the ingredients list first and say to yourself “Ok, these tortilla chips were made with sunflower oil. How oily are they? It looks like a 200 calorie serving has 30 calories from fat. That’s not too high.”


3) The current recommendation is 1200-1500 mg with no more than 2300 mg a day. The cool thing is… this pretty much corresponds with your caloric intake. So just look at the calories in a serving and compare it to the mg of sodium in a serving. If there are more calories than mg of salt, that food isn’t too salty. If there are more mg of salt than calories, that’s a salty food.

Again, some things you expect to be salty and eat them because they are salty and that’s fine, but this will give you a very quick idea of some hidden salt you may not be aware of.

Example: My tortilla chips have 95 mg of sodium in a 140 calorie serving. My “lightly salted” peanuts have 95 mg of sodium in a 170 calorie serving. However, Special K breakfast cereal has 220 mg of sodium in a 110 calorie serving. Woah, baby! And, you don’t even taste or enjoy the salt!

Added sugars

4) The thing to watch out for is ADDED sugar, but this isn’t on the nutritional facts. Only TOTAL sugar is. So grapes look as bad as kool-aid on the label. The key is to check the ingredients list for sugars. Look for sugar, brown sugar, honey, cane juice, malt syrup, brown rice syrup, corn syrup, etc. Remember that ingredients are listed by weight, with the heaviest first. So the closer to the beginning of the list, the more prevalent that ingredient is.

How’s this for sneaky: Honey Bunches of Oats breakfast cereal has “sugar” as the third ingredient, and “brown sugar” as the fifth ingredient. Because they are listed separately, they appear to be a lesser part of the cereal. Look further on the list and you’ll see “corn syrup”, “honey”, and “malted corn and barley syrup”. Five separate sources of sugar. I bet if you added them together, they’d be the first or the second ingredient on the list. Yikes.

Refined Carbs

5) Again, the nutritional facts label does not separate refined carbs from the carbs from whole grains. So check the ingredients list. If it doesn’t say “whole”, “cracked”, “rolled”, or “stone-ground”, then you are looking at a refined carbohydrate.

Example: “Organic enriched durum” is a fancy way of saying “white flour”. Keep your eyes open! The first ingredient in both Special K and Honey Bunches of Oats is a refined carbohydrate.

A practice round

Let’s hone your skills a bit before you are turned loose on a whole grocery store worth of labels. 🙂

Click here for the nutritional facts and ingredients list for Original Wheat Thins.

Are you back? If you read the label correctly, you would have quickly found out the following:

– Wheat thins are more than 20% fat (we were looking for 28 calories or less from fat)
– Wheat thins have nearly double the recommended sodium intake per calorie (we were looking for 140 mg or less because the serving size is 140 calories)
– Wheat thins are NOT whole grain. The first ingredient is white flour and there is more oil in them than there is whole grain flour.
– Wheat thins have three sources of added sugar (sugar, malt syrup, and high fructose corn syrup)

The sobering truth

A major supermarket chain recently did a nutritional analysis of each of the thousands of products in their grocery store. They rated each product with a star system, with stars given for things like fiber and vitamin content and stars taken away for saturated fat and added sugars. They marketed it as a great way for shoppers to be “smart” when shopping. However, the scary thing is… 76% of the products outside the produce section had (by their own admission) “no nutritional value”. They received 0 stars!

So, the bottom line is to really be a smart shopper, stick to the produce section and choose products that make the cut after you glance at their ingredients list and nutritional facts.

Questions? Tips? Leave a comment!

About beanland

Scott is a family practice doctor and Anne is a full-time mother and teacher to three beautiful girls and one boy.
This entry was posted in Healthy Eating, Healthy Group. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Healthy Minds and Bodies Recap – Food labeling

  1. Carolee says:

    Oh man, I’m sorry to have missed this one. Is that dvd you spoke of still available? If so, I would love to check it out.
    Thanks for sharing all of your food wisdom with us- you truly have made a difference in our little family!


  2. Ugh. The wheat thins story is awful. Nice write-up, tho! Great to see a family caring so much about health.


  3. AnnDee says:

    I LOVE your blog. Thanks so much for doing “healthy minds, healthy bodies” I learn SOO much each meeting, especially cuz you post everything. It’s so nice to have someone so knowledgable about this stuff — I think most people want to be healthier — they just don’t know where to start. you make it easy for everyone! thanks.
    PS — I’m forwarding the triathalon info right now!


  4. Jenny (vest) hatch says:

    Great info! Thanks for writing that up… we try to be healthy in my house too, so those are some good guidelines to go by. Be sure to keep posting the great info! Oh, and I’m off to buy the ingredients for the Balls of Yum tomorrow! Thanks


  5. Excellent blog, thank you.
    I have an organic website based in the UK.
    I have a question for you.
    Is there a standard for labeling nutritional information?
    I couldn’t find one and made one up and I’m sure its not right.
    Any help, please contact me.


  6. Sylvie Seguin says:

    I’ve been looking for a group like you for such a long time. My husband and I are alienated by our families because we emphasize the importance of produce in our plates. Many people feel they have the right to glance over in our plate and say ” oh! your eating all those vegetables. You should get more meat, more fat, more salt, more sauce, more… in your plate.” We never think of criticizing the way they eat eventhough we don’t agree with it. It’s so insulting.

    I think many people are afraid to find out what they are really eating becaus emany of their comfort foods might not be that healthy. Or they are just sceptical with comments such as “everything that’s healthy for you is always found out to be not that good for you…”

    Thanks for your tips. It’s very encouraging to see that others look at their labels that closely too, or want to learn about lloking at the labels that closely.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s