A recent government survey found that over 60 percent of shoppers use the nutrition facts panel on packaged foods. But using that information correctly is the real key to making the healthiest choices—and that can be a little tricky. One of my favorite things to do with my personal clients is take a trip to the grocery store together. Here are five common mistakes I tend to see when strolling the aisles, and the most important info to look for on any food package:
Ignoring the serving size
All of the nutrition fact’s numbers are based on a single serving, but many packages that seem like one reasonable portion may actually contain two or more. I recently saw a package of four muffins that listed eight servings per container. If you simply glanced at the calories and assumed that a serving was a whole muffin you’d be getting double what you bargained for. A three-ounce bar of dark chocolate may contain two or three servings, and the math on microwave popcorn is truly a mystery. One of my favorite brands contains three bags per box, but the servings per bag listed are three, and the servings per container listed are eight (huh?). Bottom line: check the serving size first, and know that if you eat double or triple what’s listed you have to multiply the numbers accordingly.
Confusing the terms “reduced” and “low”
These two words don’t mean the same thing. A food that says reduced simply means it contains at least 25 percent less of something. For example, a reduced sodium soy sauce may contain 25 percent less sodium than the original version, but that doesn’t mean it’s low in sodium. In fact one tablespoon packs about 700 milligrams of sodium, a big chunk of the 1,500 to 2,300 milligram cap we should be aiming for per day. And sometimes reduced isn’t a good thing. Reduced fat nut butter typically contains about the same number of calories per serving and often more sugar. Plus, the fat in nut butter is the “good” heart healthy kind that boosts satiety, delays stomach emptying so you feel fuller longer, and ups the absorption of antioxidants. The lesson is no matter what the front of the label says, always check the actual numbers and serving size, especially if you’re watching your sodium intake.
Trusting the words zero and free
Labeling laws allow foods with less than 0.5 grams of trans fat to be labeled trans fat free or say zero grams, but if a food contains 0.4 grams and you eat 10 servings of it over the week, you actually consumed 4 grams of trans fat, not zero. The only surefire way to tell if a food contains trans fat is to read the ingredient list. If you see the words partially hydrogenated, it’s in there. The same holds true for sugar free. Sugar free candy, cookies, and ice cream aren’t carb free or calorie free. One common brand of sugar free cookies contains 140 calories, 10 grams of fat, and 19 grams of carbohydrates per serving. Even without the sugar, there are no beneficial nutrients and if your body can’t burn or use the calories they’ll go straight to your fat cells.
It’s easy to get confused here, for example, two percent on milk. Many people think that means the milk is 98 percent fat free, but it actually means that two percent of the weight of the milk is fat. Whole milk is generally four percent fat by weight, so while two percent is reduced, it’s not low. In fact about 30 percent of the calories in a cup of two percent milk come from fat, and it’s same for two percent yogurt. Ground meat is another example. Ninety percent lean ground beef means that 10 percent of the weight comes from non-lean sources, including animal fat. Ninety percent sounds very lean, but a three ounce serving still contains about nine grams of fat, about half of which is saturated, the kind that raises “bad” cholesterol. To keep it simple, stick to these rules of thumb if you eat milk and meat go organic if you can, reach for skim milk and 0 percent or fat free dairy, and for ground meats look for the highest percent lean you can find. Many stores now have 99 percent, or take a super lean cut of meat to the in-store butcher and ask him or her to grind it for you.
Not reading the ingredient list
In my opinion the most important info on a label is the ingredient list but only about half of shoppers read it. I tell my clients it should be the very first thing you look at, because the only way to truly judge the quality of a food is to find out what it’s made of. Even organic foods can be highly processed. If the ingredient list reads like a recipe and the package only contains wholesome ingredients you could use to make the product in your own kitchen it’s a good bet. But if you don’t recognize or can’t pronounce the ingredients, think twice before adding it to your cart.
Cynthia Sass is a registered dietitian with master's degrees in both nutrition science and public health. Frequently seen on national TV, she's a SHAPE contributing editor and nutrition consultant to the New York Rangers and Tampa Bay Rays. Her latest New York Times best seller is S.A.S.S. Yourself Slim: Conquer Cravings, Drop Pounds and Lose Inches.