Joanne SmithHow to read food labels is a question I often get asked. People with mobility impairments — like stroke survivors and people with MS — are at increased risk of strokes, so I cannot stress enough how important it is to know which fats to eat and/or avoid. Spinal cord injury survivors are at high risk for weight gain and developing type 2 diabetes, so it is essential to know the sugar content of the foods we are consuming. Individuals with cerebral palsy are more likely to have high blood pressure, making awareness of daily salt intake vital.

Here is a quick lesson on how to interpret health claims made on food packages, decipher nutrition fact labels and clarify ingredient lists.

First off, whole foods don’t need a label, and unprocessed foods such as whole grains, legumes, fruits and vegetables also need no explanation, so focus on eating these types of foods.

reading food labelsAlso, beware of health claims made on packaging. If a label has to convince you that it’s good for you, it’s probably not. For example:

• “Contains omega-3” is often seen on bread, juice and even margarine containers. Yes, omega-3 fats are indeed very good for us, but here quantity counts. For instance, it’s recommended that we get 3-4 grams of omega-3 fats a day. However, when omega-3 fats come from sources added to foods such as margarine, you’re only receiving approximately 0.3 grams per teaspoon, which means you’d need to eat about a half cup of margarine to get your daily requirement. Enjoy a piece of fresh fish instead.

• “Made with Whole Grains” is often displayed on cereal boxes, which may contain a smattering of whole grains, but may also be made from processed white flour and a ton of refined sugar. Read the ingredient list. If it is indeed made from whole grains, it will be the first ingredient on the list — not white flour or sugar.

• “Light” (one of my favorite misleading label examples) does not necessarily mean low in fat or calories. It can actually mean light in color or taste. Or in the case of olive oil, “lite” or “light” refers to the more processed versions, which are less healthy.

• “Low in Fat” means no more than three grams of fat per serving. However, fat makes our food taste great and gives us a sense of satisfaction, so if it’s low in fat, then it may be high in sugar and/or salt to provide flavor — not a good thing.

• “No Sugar Added” refers to refined sugar, not natural sugar. So, it might mean no refined sugar has been added to a heck of a lot of sugar already there.

• “Low in Sodium” is allowed on food packages if the food contains less than 140 mg per serving. It is estimated that the average individual consumes two to three times the amount of recommended salt every day and that 75 percent of it comes from processed food. The best way to reduce sodium is to avoid processed/packaged foods.

Above is an example of a nutrition facts label, in this case for macaroni and cheese. When examining the calorie count, make sure you look at the serving size first. Are the calories listed for the whole package or just a portion of it? This can make a huge difference on calories consumed.

When reading the ingredient list portion of the nutrition facts, ingredients are listed from most to least used. If sugar is one of the top three ingredients, I recommend you don’t buy it. Also, beware of:

• Unhealthy hidden fats listed as vegetable oils, hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated fat.

• Hidden sugars listed as fructose, high fructose corn syrup, corn syrup, glucose, sucrose, lactose, maltose, invert sugar, corn sweetener, fruit juice concentrate, brown sugar.

• Hidden salt listed as sodium chloride (table salt), sodium bicarbonate (baking soda), disodium phosphate, sodium caseinate, MSG (monosodium glutamate), sodium sulfite, sodium nitrite.

Don’t be fooled by labels. Learning how to read food labels properly can help you eat your way to better health.