Walking down the aisle can be nerve-wracking — especially when it's the grocery store aisle, says Bonnie Taub-Dix, a registered dietitian in private practice in New York City.
Her weight-loss clients often tell her they wish she would go food shopping with them to help them sort through all of the choices.
Sometimes making food decisions "feels like it requires being a mathematician, dietitian and librarian," says Taub-Dix, author of the new book Read It Before You Eat It: How to Decode Food Labels and Make the Healthiest Choice Every Time.
She advises clients to study products' nutrition-facts panel, which is loaded with helpful information. Many shoppers try to follow that advice, up to a point. Consumers say they are most likely to read the calories, sodium, fat and sugar content on the panel, a recent poll found.
"People read the nutrition-facts panel more often when they are looking at a food product for the first time," says Wendy Reinhardt Kapsak, a registered dietitian with the International Food Information Council Foundation, which sponsored the survey. "They use the panel to compare products more than they do to balance their overall daily diet."
She says some public health advocates are calling for changes to the panel to make it more user-friendly, including making the calorie information more prominent.
A study published recently in the Journal of the American Dietitic Associationfound that 61.6% of participants reported using the nutrition-facts panel and 47.2% read the serving size at least sometimes when deciding to purchase a food product.
The Food and Drug Administration is reviewing package labels, "including whether the listing of calories should be bigger and more prominent," says FDA spokeswoman Siobhan DeLancey. The agency also is looking at whether the serving sizes listed on packages still fit today's eating habits.
In the meantime, the current panel is useful for those who want to eat a more healthful diet, Taub-Dix says.
"I don't think people realize how many food decisions we make a day, and how little time we put into making them," she says. "We often spend more time thinking about what we put on our body — shopping for clothes and shoes — than what we put in our body when we go food shopping."
So how do you read the current nutrition panel?
Taub-Dix explains what the different items on the panel mean:
The information is based on one serving. Read this carefully because it can be deceiving, she says.
•A packaged muffin may contain 300 calories a serving, but if the serving size listed is 1/2 muffin, there are two servings per package and the actual muffin contains 600 calories.
Saturated fats and trans fats
These are often called "bad fats" because they raise cholesterol and increase a person's risk of developing heart disease.
Saturated fats come from animal products such as butter, cheese and fatty meats. Most trans fats come from partially hydrogenated fats, found in shortening and stick margarine.
The American Heart Association advises:
•Limit total fat intake to less than 25%-35% of your total calories each day.
•Limit saturated fats to less than 7% of total daily calories and trans fats to less than 1%.
•Get remaining fat from sources of monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats such as nuts, fish and vegetable oils.
"This word became more popular than disco in the '70s," Taub-Dix writes. "Everyone knew they should avoid it but they didn't know where it was hidden in the foods they were eating."
The American Heart Association advises:
•Limit cholesterol intake to less than 300 milligrams a day.
•If you have heart disease or your LDL (bad) cholesterol level is 100 or greater, limit your cholesterol intake to less than 200 milligrams a day.
A food containing 5 grams or more of fiber per serving is considered to be high in fiber, Taub-Dix says.
Many processed foods are loaded with it, she says. "We get more sodium from processed foods than from the salt shaker at the table."
U.S. Department of Agriculture guidelines say:
•Most adults — including those with high blood pressure, African Americans, the middle-aged and the elderly — should consume no more than 1,500 milligrams of sodium a day.
•Others should consume less than 2,300 milligrams, or less than a teaspoon.
% Daily value
This tells you how much of a certain nutrient you will get from eating one serving of the food, she says.
• If the label says 20% after the word calcium, that means you'll get 20% of the calcium you need for the day from one serving of that food.
•The "% daily value" is based on consuming an average diet of 2,000 calories a day, so if you eat fewer or more calories in a day, you need to adjust your thinking accordingly.