Beware of health claims. While the FDA requires scientific consensus before a company claims its product does something such as preventing a disease or strengthening a body part, claims that foods support or maintain certain body functions are not monitored as strictly. For example, while “helps reduce the risk of heart disease” would not be allowed without FDA approval, “helps maintain a healthy heart” would not. Another example of how companies are deceiving consumers with their wording is the phrase, “Helps support immunity.” Unless there is strong evidence to back up such claims, buyers should beware and know that the majority of these tend to be misleading. Many manufacturers make a number of ambiguous health statements that may or may not be scientifically valid.
Buy whole, fresh foods. If you want the truly healthy choice, avoid packaged foods whenever possible. Foods without nutrition labels will be the healthiest.
When you do buy these, however, read the ingredient labels carefully, not the “nutrition” labels on the front of the package, if you want to know what the product contains.
Go organic when possible. If a product is labeled as USDA organic, this organization says that 95% or more of its ingredients must have been grown without synthetic pesticides or fertilizers. This is not the same, however, as a product made with organic ingredients; these must have only a minimum of 70% of their ingredients meet this standard. Keep in mind, though, that even organically grown or processed foods can still be full of fat and high in calories and sugar.
Avoid Trans fats. Whenever possible, avoid trans fats and products with partially hydrogenated oils. Check the ingredient list for words such as hydrogenated oils and shortening, which should tell you that trans fat is still present.
“Use by” “Sell by” or “Best by” dates on your food products. For the most part, these are arbitrary dates set by the manufacturers and are dates that relate to when a producer thinks a food’s peak freshness is reached, not when it will make you sick. Pay attention to the food’s smell, texture, taste. If these are fine, don’t waste food needlessly.
Only food with a high water content tends to spoil quickly. If this is the case, it will develop a slimy texture, strong odor, and change in color. In that case, toss it; otherwise, save your money.
Serving Sizes. First, watch out for serving sizes; much of the nutritional information you think is for a single serving is actually divided into two or more on the Nutrition Facts panel. This makes the consumer believe it contains less sugar, fat and calories than it actually does.
What that means: A package may contain double the serving size, so read (and measure if necessary) until you have a handle on how much you are actually consuming in a typical serving.
Calories. First, understand that the FDA allows manufacturers to use only averages for calorie counts on packages. The same goes for salt and fat grams, which may be off by as much as 20%.
What that means: A 500 calorie meal could have as much as 600 calories. Fat/sugar/salt “free” could mean that there are simply few enough calories per serving that it isn’t required the manufacturers list them.
Trans fat. When it comes to trans fat, the FDA allows manufacturers to put 0 on the package if this amount is less than .5 grams. For that reason, it’s best to avoid products with partially hydrogenated oils listed in them.
What that means: If your total daily allowance is only 2 grams, then .5 is one quarter of that allowance. If you eat several servings, this could easily add up.
Cholesterol. “Bad” or LDL comes from saturated fats (butter, cheese, fatty meats, etc.) while “good” or HDL comes from monosaturated or polyunsaturated fats (nuts, fish, legumes).
What that means: No more than 120 of your 2000 calories a day (6%) should come from saturated fat. That’s 13 grams per day.
Total fat. Limit these nutrients. A 2000 calorie diet should include no more than 16 grams of total saturated fat per day.
Sodium. Limit this to no more than 1500 mg per day.
Dietary fibers. Get enough of these important nutrients, including dietary fibers, proteins, calcium, iron, vitamins, and other nutrients each day.
Sugars. Most of us know that a lot of these is “bad” and fewer are better, but how much is a gram anyway? Why there are no recommended daily allowances (RDA) after the number like there is on other ingredients is because currently, there is no RDA by the FDA, only a guideline that we limit sugar intake to 12g added sugars per day for children, 25g for women and 36g for men. How does that translate into plain English? Four grams (g) is equivalent to one teaspoon sugar.