What to eat?
Seems like a simple question, but it's one that can vex even the most savvy eater, especially when trying to make sense of food packaging.
How often do you browse the aisles trying to discern the "best" pasta, cereal or bread? Most concerned eaters know the obvious, like there is no fruit in "Froot Loops." But what about those labeled "whole grain," "all natural" or "healthy"?
Cut through the confusion, and read the package from back to front, starting with the ingredient label. Heed these tips:
· Natural: In your quest to find foods that nourish, do you purchase foods labeled "100 Percent Natural," "Healthy," or "No Artificial Ingredients" without actually reading the ingredients? We're at a disadvantage compared with countries like Canada, where labeling laws are more stringent and specific.
The USDA says that the "natural" claim means that the food does not contain any artificial ingredients, coloring ingredients or chemical preservatives, and, in the case of meat and poultry, is minimally processed. However, the fact that the meat may be full of "natural flavors" and "naturally raised" does not mean that the animal isn't raised on a factory farm. It also doesn't mean that the animal has access to the outdoors.
· Multigrain: From breads to crackers to hot and cold cereals, "multigrain" does not mean whole grain -- it means just about nothing at all, except that the product contains an undefined amount of different types of grains. What you really want to look for is "100 percent whole grain," so you're assured that you're getting all of the good nutrition from that grain's kernel, including vitamin E, magnesium and fiber. Some packages distract the consumer by touting impressive amounts of vitamins and minerals. Be sure the first ingredient is "100 percent whole," either wheat or another grain.
· Low Glycemic Index: Where "low carb" left off, the "low glycemic index" has taken over. The glycemic index ranks foods based on how quickly they elevate blood-sugar levels compared to the same quantity of a reference food (pure glucose or white bread). In addition to not considering the amount of food usually eaten, the G.I. doesn't include the amount of fiber in the food. A medium baked potato has a higher G.I. (85) than a Snickers bar (55), and who would ever say a candy bar is better than a baked potato? The quantity of food represented by that ranking is always 50 grams, regardless of how much food (volume) it takes to eat 50 grams; it's real easy to eat 50 carbohydrate grams of cookies (seven small cookies), but much tougher to eat 50 carbohydrate grams of carrots (five cups of carrots) in one sitting!
· Organic: The truth is, if it's sugar, it's sugar -- organic or not, corn syrup, honey, cane sugar or white, maple syrup or agave nectar -- all nutritive sweeteners have approximately 16 to 20 calories per teaspoon, and negligible nutrition.
· "Free" Foods: Foods labeled "low-fat" or "fat-free" do not make them calorie-free; manufacturers add sugar to add texture and bulk lost from removing fat. A "sugar-free" cookie may have a similar calorie count compared to a regular one.
· Yogurt: Plain, low-fat or nonfat yogurt is healthy because it's a low-fat source of calcium, vitamin D, magnesium and protein, but many manufacturers have taken liberties with it. They have loaded it up with excess, unwanted calories, sugar and synthetic sugar substitutes.
· Instant Oatmeal: We know not to choose sugary cold cereals, but convenience packages of instant oatmeal are no exception. Read the ingredient label first -- one teaspoon of sugar equals 4 grams: some of the "maple" or other flavors have more than 12 grams per serving. Buy whole oats, microwave for a minute in a glass dish, stir in a quarter-cup of fresh fruit or raisins, cook one more minute and -- sweet!
Shop armed with information to help you read beyond the packaging and make wise choices. Always shop with a list, never shop when you're hungry, read the ingredient label first and stick to the perimeters of the supermarket, where you'll find the healthiest items.
Susan Burke March, a registered and licensed dietitian, is the author of Making Weight Control Second Nature: Living Thin Naturally. E-mail her at: www.SusanBurkeMarch.com .