(1) Nutrition labels. While strolling down the aisles of the grocery store, reading your shopping list and throwing items in the shopping cart as you go, have you ever wondered what is in the food you’re buying? It is easy to be distracted by the pretty photos on the box. Who doesn’t love happy cows grazing on beautiful pastures in California? Do you think that is real? It’s not! The front of the box isn’t as important as the nutrition label on the back of the box. There are ingredients back there that you can’t pronounce, and some even have numbers in them, such as polysorbate 80, that make you think there might have been 79 other polysorbates before this one.

(2) Nutrition facts. You might be surprised to learn that the Nutrition Fact label is not always factual. Federal law allows a very lax margin of error—up to 20 percent for the stated value versus actual value of nutrients. That means a 100-calorie snack can contain up to 120 calories and still not be violating Food and Drug Administration (FDA) rules.

(3) Ingredients. When you are reading down the list of ingredients, a general rule of thumb is to go with a food that has a short list of ingredients and words that you can pronounce. The ingredients are listed in order of predominance, with the ingredients used in the greatest amount first, followed in descending order by those in smaller amounts.

(4) Serving size. This is something many people overlook. If you just read the calorie count, you might think that you can eat a box of crackers and only ingest 240 calories. Wrong! That box of crackers might be divided into six servings. The label says it is 240 calories per serving, which means that box has 1440 calories. Many items, even bit-size items, count as more than one serving.


(5) Sugar. On average, an American consumes 4 pounds of sugar every 20 days. That is 22 teaspoons a day. Even weirder, some foods that contain sugar do not have sugar listed as an ingredient. How so? There are many different forms of sugar. Sugar can be listed as sugar, fructose, sucrose, glucose or high-fructose corn syrup.

(6) Fat. Fat is listed as “total fat” and then broken down into saturated (artery-clogging fat), unsaturated (healthy fat) and trans fat (fat that has been artificially altered to increase the shelf life). Unsaturated fats are often broken down further into monounsaturated or polyunsaturated fats. These fats lower your cholesterol levels and risk of heart disease.

(7) Hidden ingredients. There is no FDA requirement to list chemical contaminants, heavy metals, bisphenol-A, PCBs or other toxic substances found in food. As a result, ingredients you need to know about don’t appear on the ingredient list. The manufacturer only lists what it wants you to believe is in the food.

(8) Zero. The giant food companies have figured out how to manipulate the serving size of foods in order to make it appear that their products are free of harmful ingredients like trans fatty acids. The FDA created an easy-to use loophole for reporting trans fatty acids on the label. Any food containing 0.5 grams or less per serving is allowed to claim zero trans fats on the label. Thus, an unscrupulous manufacturer can just decrease the serving size until his food is legal.

(9) Cholesterol. Cholesterol is a type of fat that comes only from animal products. Too much of it increases your risk of heart disease, so keep it under 300 milligrams a day.

(10) Sodium. Sodium is salt. Given that most food companies want their foods to have as long a shelf life as possible to save money, they add high amounts of salt to preserve the food. High salt intake leads to diseases such as high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease. It is in your best interest to understand how much salt your food has in it and try to stay below the recommended 2400mg of sodium per day.

Photo credit: CDC

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