Want the inside scoop on label reading? We spoke to registered dietitian Bonnie Taub-Dix, author of the new label-decoding book Read It Before You Eat It. Check out her responses to Healthy Eats’ reader questions, and find out the biggest mistakes shoppers make.
Q: What was you inspiration for writing a book that decodes food labels?
I love everything about food…including food shopping! In my 3 decades of teaching patients how to eat, I’m always amazed about how people are so confused when it comes to buying healthy food in the supermarket. I wrote this book because I wanted to accompany shoppers through a personal GPS of the supermarket to walk them down every aisle and clear up the confusion while making food shopping easier and faster.
You shouldn’t have to be a dietitian, a mathematician or a librarian to read a label. This book could help make food shopping a breeze!
Q: I noticed that you do not name one brand name in a book that is all about reading food labels! What made you decide to do it this way?
I wanted consumers to be able to shop any aisle, in any store, in any town and be able to buy healthy foods at any price-point. I do have favorite brands that I like…but in my book, I wanted to be impartial.
Q: While researching your book Read It Before You Eat It, what did you discover is the biggest mistake shoppers make when it comes to reading labels?
They don’t read them! Too many people get smitten by the sexy words and pictures on the front of package, or they choose a food because of the package it comes in, but they don’t flip that pack over to see what they’re really getting inside.
For the next three questions, we asked our Facebook readers what confuses them most about food labels. What would you tell each one?
Q: I’m not a male on a 2000 calorie diet. How do I know the right percentage of my daily intake based on a female 1500 calorie diet?
You could check your own daily needs by visiting mypyramid.gov and applying your particular weight, height, and level of activity. Otherwise, you could estimate, based upon the numbers provided on the Nutrition Facts Panel (which is based on a 2,000 calorie diet.) BTW, you are not alone – many Americans need less than 2,000 calories a day. Interestingly, although the ‘calorie’ listing on the label gets the most attention, surveys show that most of us have no idea about the amount of calories we actually need.
Q: Can you help decipher popcorn labels, other than the 100 calorie packs, they are always really confusing!
These are some of the most confusing labels, and you need a magnifying glass to read them! Most tricky — check serving sizes. I’ve seen bags marked “4-2/3 svgs per bag!” That means you and 3-2/3 people have to eat out of that bag to meet the numbers written on the label. Best bet: buy single serving bags and be sure to check that there are no hydrogenated fats on the ingredient list. (Yes – another labeling loophole is that manufacturers are allowed to list “0 grams of trans fat” if the food has 0.5 grams of trans fat or less per serving. Aside from calories, that’s another important reason to check serving sizes.)
Q: When the sugar and fiber numbers don’t add up to the total carb content, what else do the labels consider a carb?
Total carbohydrates include starches, complex carbs, dietary fiber, added sugar or sweeteners and nondigestible additives. The 3 categories required to be listed in grams on the Nutrition Facts Panel are total carbohydrates, total sugars, and total dietary fiber. Unfortunately, on our present labels, natural sugars (in milk and fruit for example) are listed separately from added sugars (those added by the manufacturer.)
A quick tip to help you to pick a healthier carb: Try to shoot for one where the grams of sugar represent a very small percentage of the total carb number.
Q: Some of our readers commented on the serving sizes and said they were unrealistic, especially items like soda with 2.5 servings. What advice could you give them?
Many serving sizes are unrealistic, to make the numbers on the label look better than they really are. If you’re willing to take the challenge…try pouring yourself a bowl of breakfast cereal (the amount you usually pour) and then use a measuring cup to see how it measures up to the serving size. You might be surprised! The bottom line is that the serving size is a suggestion – some people need more while others need a lot less.
Q: What are the most important things to looks for when trying to make healthy choices?
This answer could take me hundreds of pages to reply to…that’s why I wrote Read It Before You Eat It! Each line on the Nutrition Facts Panel speaks to your individual needs: If your cholesterol is high, looking at the types of fat and how much fat you’re getting may be most important to you, while if you have hypertension (a.k.a. high blood pressure), sodium may be a number that shouts out. Most importantly, take a few minutes to flip the pack over – a small investment of time for some comparison shopping could pay off big time in the long run.
Bonnie Taub-Dix, MA,RD,CDN is a past spokesperson for the ADA and Owner of BTD Nutrition Consultants. She is a regular guest on national TV and radio shows and in the press, including the New York Times, Washington Post, USA Today, CNN, and Good Morning America. For realistic guidance without gimmicks visit her Web site at www.betterthandieting.net and her weekly blog for USA Today. Her newest book Read It Before You Eat It (Plume) is available in stores and online.