Deconstructing nutrition labels and easing grocery-aisle stress

A local dietitian offers tips on how to read a nutrition label. (Thinkstock)

Kait Fortunato, special to

WASHINGTON – The nutrition facts label is a wonderful tool that allows you to take ownership over your food choices. But knowing what to look for on a food label can cause confusion among consumers.

Reading nutrition labels can also be time consuming, especially when shopping for family members who have different nutritional needs.

But reading food labels doesn’t have to be so daunting. Here are some tips on how to make the process easier and faster.

  1. Look at the ingredients list. Before even looking at the nutrition facts, take a look at what actually makes up the food item, and look for recognizable ingredients.

    A good example is natural peanut butter vs. standard peanut butter. Natural peanut butter has ingredients including peanuts, oil and likely salt. Conventional peanut butter ingredients include peanuts, sugar, molasses, fully hydrogenated vegetable oils, mono and diglycerides, and salt.

    Sometimes conventional peanut butters contain fewer calories and less fat, but I’d rather have the natural ingredients, nothing artificial.

  2. Look at the serving size. Just keep in mind that the food label is most likely not for the whole bag, box, bar, drink, etc. Typically there is more than one serving in the food container, even though the nutrition facts label only accounts for one serving.
  3. Ignore “% Daily Value.” The percent daily value is the percentage of a certain macro or micro nutrient you need each day, based on a 2,000 calorie diet. This can be confusing as individuals require a different amount of calories depending on age, gender, height, weight and activity level.

    It is also confusing to try to add up everything in a given day. Focus more on portion control at every single meal and snack, rather than adjusting or subtracting food items from a meal to save up for a bigger meal later that day. Just try to make the best, balanced decision at each meal/snack and then move on.

  4. Look at the type of fat, not the grams of fat. Rather than focus on cutting down on fat intake, try to focus on the type of fat you eat. Our bodies need fat for transporting fat soluble vitamins, lowering inflammation, keeping hair shiny and strong, and also keeping you fuller, longer.

    Eating a low-fat diet can be harmful to your health and weight. Eating the right- fat diet can be a great tool for managing portions. Healthy fats include olive oil, avocados, flax, nuts, seeds and salmon, to name a few.

    If you do want to check the fat content in a label, check out the amount of trans fats and saturated fats. A healthy food option has 0 g trans fat and fewer than 5 g saturated fat.

  5. A few other quick focuses for food labels: Emphasis here is on the word “quick,” as you do not want to waste time in the grocery store reading every single number. Take a minute to glance at the following criteria, keeping in mind that is almost impossible for every food item to meet every requirement.

    I try to keep sodium levels under 500 mg at each meal, and aim for a serving of food to have 3 to 5 g fiber. Looking for a low-cholesterol food item? Look for something that contains under 20 mg of cholesterol.

Please keep in mind that based on your specific nutrition and health goals, you may need to pay more attention to certain nutrition facts. The overall key is to try to choose whole foods that are satisfying and enjoyable.

It is also important to allow flexibility in your diet and choose a nice balance of healthy and great-tasting foods.

Kait Fortunato is a registered dietitian at Rebecca Bitzer & Associates and serves on the board for the DC Metro Area Dietetic Association. Kait focuses on individualizing her recommendations to have each client see results and live a healthier, more productive life, and she works to help people enjoy food and eat the foods they love. Kait lives in the D.C. area and loves trying new restaurants and activities around the city. Visit Kait’s blog, Rebel Dietitian, and tweet her @Rebel_Dietitian for recipes, nutrition tips and activities in the Washington area.

Follow @WTOP and @WTOPliving on Twitter.

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