Navigating Nutritional Labels: A Guide to Healthier Grocery Shopping

Grocery shopping can be a daunting task causing some consumers to feel lost in making healthful decisions amongst a plethora of food choices. When shopping, we are bombarded by claims, such as “All Natural”, “Gluten Free”, “Low Carb”, “Lean”, “Low Fat”, “Fat Free”, “Sugar Free”, and the list goes on. Some of these food claims are helpful, but oftentimes consumers are just left puzzled as to what they should buy.

Several front of package labeling claims are regulated by the FDA, but some are not, which opens the door to food manufacturers using any language they desire to describe their food products. Some of the nutritional claims that are regulated by the FDA include:

  • Calorie Free, Low Calorie, and Reduced/Less Calorie

  • Fat Free, Low Fat, and Reduced/Less Fat

  • Saturated Fat Free, Low Saturated Fat, and Reduced/Less Saturated Fat

  • Cholesterol Free, Low Cholesterol, and Reduced/Less Cholesterol

  • Sodium Free, Low Sodium, and Reduced/Less Sodium

  • Sugar Free, Low Sugar, and Reduced/Less Sugar

  • No Added Sugar/Without Added Sugar/No Sugar Added

  • High/Rich in/Excellent Source of

  • More/Fortified/Added/Enriched/Extra/Plus

  • Light/Lite

However within each of these claim regulations are listings of how these terms can be used based upon the specific nutrient the claim is referencing. For instance, “Low Sodium” and “Low Fat” claim regulations vary based upon what we nutritionally need on a daily basis. It’s completely unrealistic for each consumer to look up this information in order to make healthy choices when visiting their neighborhood grocery store…I was even frustrated reading through all the red tape on the FDA website! It’s quite a daunting task!

When I educate clients on label and ingredient list reading, I reference my Rule of 3’s. This rule allows consumers to make wise, educated decisions regarding their food choices while not getting confused by all of the “fluff” that is on the front of the package. When looking at the nutrition facts label, you are striving to have at least 3 of the Rule of 3’s within compliance:

  • At least 3 g fiber per serving

  • Less than 6 g added sugar per serving

  • Less than 9 g fat per serving

  • At least 12 g protein per serving

  • No more than 15% sodium per serving

For the general consumer, finding labels that meet at least 3 of the above nutrient values will assist them in making healthful decisions while shopping. Combining foods may allow you to meet all of the goals. For instance, an 8-ounce serving of 2 % plain Greek yogurt meets the goals for added sugar, fat, protein, and sodium, but not fiber. Adding 1 cup of fresh strawberries halves to the yogurt is the perfect 3 g fiber addition to meet all of the rules.

The ultimate tell all to knowing exactly what is in a particular food product is the ingredient list. When reading this list, if you notice an ingredient that you have no clue what it does, why it was used, or you simply can’t pronounce it, you may want to think twice about buying that food product. In addition, FDA regulates that ingredients be listed in order of abundance. So, if sugar or unhealthy fats (think hydrogenated oils) are listed in the first 3 ingredients, it’s best to leave that product on the shelf.

In closing, keep in mind that front of packaging labels and claims can be deceiving. So, flip the box and read the nutrition facts label and ingredient list. Think of the Rule of 3’s! And, lastly, strive to have 90% of your basket be 1-ingredient food items, such as fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, whole grains (unrefined and minimally processed), and low fat dairy. There is no confusion with these, what you see is what you get!

Stay healthy Acadiana!


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