A new government survey found that over 60% of shoppers use the Nutrition Facts panels on packaged foods, but using that information correctly is the real key to making the healthiest choices - and that can be tricky. When I take clients to the grocery store or review labels from foods they have in their own fridge and cupboards I see a handful of common (and easy to make) errors. The first is ignoring the serving size.
All of the Nutrition Facts data (calories, grams of sugar, fiber, etc.) is based on one serving of the food, but packages that seem like a single serving may actually contain two or more. For example, a 20 oz bottle of cola or sweet tea contains 2.5 servings, so instead of 100 calories it’s actually 250. Muffins are another good example. If you read the “servings per package” you’ll often see 8, even when there are only 4 muffins in the container. That means half a muffin is considered a serving. If you eat the whole thing, which is likely, you need to double the calories, fat, carbs, sodium, etc.
Sometimes people ask me, “How can companies get away with that?” Well it’s complicated. Serving sizes on food packages are standardized and sometimes a serving is pretty representative of the amount someone might actually eat in one sitting, like one cup of cereal or 8 ounces of milk. For other foods a standard serving seems unreasonable, like half a muffin.
Adding to the confusion some label terms refer to percentages, but those numbers have to do with weight, like 2% milk. Many people think that means the milk is 98% fat free, but it actually means that 2% of the weight of the milk is fat. Whole milk is generally 4% so while 2% is reduced, it’s not low in fat. In fact in 2% milk about 30% of the calories come from fat. Ground meat is another example - 90% lean ground beef means that 10% of the weight comes from non lean sources, including animal fat. 90% sounds very lean but a 3 oz serving (about the size of a deck of cards) still contains about 9 g of fat, about half of which is saturated, the kind that raises “bad” LDL cholesterol, upping the risk of heart disease.
Bottom line the best way to avoid being fooled is to do a little extra investigating. Even if a food seems like a single serving always check both the “serving size” and “servings per container.” If you drink milk, stick with organic skim, which is 0%, and if you eat ground meats look for the highest percent lean you can find (preferably organic) – many stores now sell 98%, or take a very lean cut to the meat department and ask them to grind it for you.
Check back tomorrow for more info about the best way to take advantage of label info, and as always please add your questions and comments!