Beef wok stir fry with vegetables

Joshua Resnick

It seems as if it should be easy. The Food and Drug Administration requires nutrition information to appear on most food labels in order to help consumers make healthy choices. However, when faced with a whole aisle full of competing brands, sifting through the information can seem overwhelming.

Beth McChesney, a community dietitian with Mercy Hospital St. Louis, recommends that before spending time deciphering labels, people consider buying and preparing whole foods instead of packaged items. “Try to eat as close as you can to the way it was grown, with as little processing as possible,” she says.

Dietitians and health care professionals generally preach the benefits of eating whole fruits, vegetables, low-fat dairy products and lean proteins. However, when using fresh ingredients isn’t possible, we often turn to prepared foods as a quick alternative. In that case, experts advise paying attention to several key components of the package’s nutrition facts label.

“I suggest people start at the top,” says Kathy Kress, associate professor of nutrition and dietetics at Saint Louis University. “It starts with a serving size, and that’s the first thing a consumer should consider.” After all, eating healthy food is great, but huge portions of healthy foods can still pack enough calories to cause weight gain. “Most Americans consume larger portions than what’s recommended. The label usually tries to give a realistic portion, and most of us go way beyond that,” she adds.

Beyond the portion size, nutrient content is key, and fiber is one important clue to an item’s nutritional worth, McChesney says. “You want the amount of fiber to be up there. We don’t get as much as we should,” she says. “For instance, if you look at two labels and one has one gram of fiber and one has five, even if the one with five grams of fiber has a half gram more fat than the other one, go for the fiber.”

Nurse Jane Arrington, founder of TransFigure Total Health, agrees that a focus on fiber is smart. She counsels clients to subtract the grams of carbohydrates from the grams of fiber per serving and look for foods where the difference is less than 10. The goal is to identify foods with a low glycemic index, which is a measure of how much a food can increase blood sugar levels.

“If you want to have a piece of fruit, you can choose the one that’s higher in fiber, and that way you don’t get the sugar spike that you would get with some of the others, and so you’re making a healthier choice,” Arrington says. She notes that apples are one of her favorite high-fiber fruits.

In addition to fiber, consumers should look for foods that contain little or no saturated or trans fats, which have been linked to an increased risk of heart disease. “The Institute of Medicine and many other health organizations recommend that you should have less than a gram of trans fat a day,” Kress notes. Likewise, cholesterol should be limited to 300 mg a day or less, and sodium should not exceed 2,000 mg.

These and other general guidelines are explained in detail at fda.gov, although individuals should talk with their physician about specific health concerns and risk factors that may affect their food choices.

“Don’t necessarily trust the word ‘healthy’ on a package,” Kress notes. “You can look at the nutrition facts panel and decide if it’s healthy based on the fat, salt, fiber and the nutrients.”