What's in Your Food?

David Medansky Dietitian-Nutritionist | Nutrition, Education Waddell, AZ

People hire David Medansky to create their thinner selves because most diets are trendy, temporary and hard to stick to. He helps them feel better by teaching them how to eat healthier, and stop them from losing the same 10 pounds over and over. Bottom line, his clients improve their health and LOVE what they see in the... more

Capital One Financial promotes its credit card services by asking “What’s in your wallet?”. William Devane in his commercials for Rosland Capital gold and silver asks, “What’s in your safe?”. Perhaps the better question to ask yourself is, “What’s in your food?” Do you read the nutritional labels on the cans, packages, or boxes of the food you purchase? If you do, do you understand what you’re eating? Do you read the fine print of those delicious low-calorie recipes in magazines? My guess is that you probably don’t because most people don’t. If you do, you’ll be shocked by the amount of sugar, sodium, carbohydrates and “bad” fats that are in these scrumptious meals.

Nutrition Facts Label

Every packaged or processed product should have a label. Some restaurants have nutrition information available. The Nutritional Fact label is also known as the Nutrition Facts panel. It was first introduced in 1993. The Food and Drug Administration updated the food labeling requirements in 2016 to make it easier to see how many calories and added sugars are in a product and to make serving sizes more realistic. The new requirements does not take effect until January 1, 2021. For now, you may see the redesigned version or an old version on a product.

The information shown in the Nutrition Facts label is based on a diet of 2,000 calories a day. You need less than 2,000 calories to reduce weight. Your daily caloric intake should be between 1,250 and 1,500. The average person consumes more than 3,600 calories per day. Unfortunately, many restaurants serve meals with more than 1,500 calories. That’s more in one meal than you need for an entire day.

Good Nutrients

Some of the nutrients listed on a label are good while others are bad. The good nutrients include:

  • Fiber - Fiber helps your body digest the food you eat. It also can help lower your risk of Type 2 diabetes and heart disease. Food is high in fiber if it contains 5 grams or more per serving. Men 50 years of age or younger should get at least 38 grams of fiber per day. Women 50 years of age or younger should get at least 25 grams of fiber per day. Fiber is found in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. Look for the words “whole grain” on the package and ingredient list versus “multi grain.” Multi grain is not the same as whole grain.
  • Vitamins and minerals -The main types include, vitamin A, vitamin C, calcium, and iron. Vitamin D and potassium also are important. Talk to your doctor about what vitamins and minerals you need and how much.
  • Fats - Eating healthy fat is good for your body and will help you to stay satisfied throughout the day. Make sure you’re aware of the difference between healthy fats and unhealthy fats. Polyunsaturated and monosaturated promote good health. We’ll talk about the bad fats in a moment.
  • Protein - Protein is important for maintaining muscle mass. When you select foods at the grocery store, read Nutrition Facts labels to choose foods that provide protein. However, the percentage daily value for protein is not required on the label. Eat moderate portions of lean meat, poultry, fish, eggs, low-fat milk, yogurt, and cheese, plus beans and peas, peanut butter, and seeds.

When you check the nutrition label for protein, scan the fat grams to make sure the number is not too high. Many protein-rich foods are also high in saturated fat and some foods in the dairy and bakery aisles contain unhealthy trans-fat . 

Bad Nutrients

Nutrients that are bad for you and which you should avoid or eat less include:

  • Fat
  • Sodium
  • Carbohydrates
  • Sugars
  • Saturated fat is an unhealthy fat - This type of fat can increase your risk of heart disease and high cholesterol. The average adult should consume less than 20 grams of saturated fat per day.
  • Trans fat - This fat also increases your risk of heart disease. Experts could not provide a reference value for trans-fat nor any other information that FDA believes adequate to establish a daily value or %DV.

Scientific reports link trans-fat (and saturated fat) with raising blood LDL ("bad") cholesterol levels, both of which increase your risk of coronary heart disease, a leading cause of death in the U.S. Ideally, you should get 0 grams of trans fat per day. Companies can list 0 grams if it contains less than 0.5 grams of trans fat per serving. This means that your food may have trans-fat  even if the nutrition label says 0.

Check the ingredient list for trans-fat products. This includes any partially hydrogenated oil and hydrogenated vegetable oils. Trans fat often is found in baked goods, fried foods, snack foods, and margarine. If you eat more than one serving, you could be eating too much trans-fat .

  • Cholesterol - You should eat less than 300 milligrams of cholesterol per day. If you have heart disease, aim for less than 200 milligrams per day.
  • Carbohydrates - Whether or not you're counting carbs, choosing better sources of carbohydrates is important for good health.
  • Sugars - It's smart to monitor your sugar intake for weight loss and maintenance, as well as overall good health. Selecting foods with a lower number is a good idea. The new Nutrition Facts panel makes it easier to choose healthier options by breaking out the amount of added sugar under the "Total Sugar" heading. Foods with more added sugars provide empty calories and provide very little nutrition. Select foods with fewer added sugars.

Also, check the ingredients to make sure there are no ingredients ending in “OSE” or contain Aspartame and other artificial sweeteners. Simple carbohydrates, or sugars, occur naturally in foods such as fruit (fructose) and milk (lactose) or come from refined sources such as table sugar (sucrose) or corn syrup. Added sugars must be included on the Nutrition Facts label starting in 2018. The 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends consuming no more than 10 percent of daily calories from added sugars.

  • Sodium, or salt, is one nutrient that gets its own bolded line on the label, because too much can be harmful for your health. Most experts recommend that healthy adults limit their sodium intake to no more than 2,300 milligrams per day. If you have a specific health condition, such as high blood pressure or kidney disease, consult your doctor or nutritionist to determine the right amount for you. Low sodium amounts to 140 milligrams or less per serving.

Before you purchase any processed foods, ask yourself these three questions: 1) What are the ingredients? 2) Are the ingredients nutritious? 3) Where do the ingredients come from?

Managing Your Sugar Intake

If you are concerned about your intake of sugars, make sure that added sugars are not listed as one of the first few ingredients. Other names for added sugars include corn syrup, high-fructose corn syrup, fruit juice concentrate, maltose, dextrose, sucrose, honey, and maple syrup. Foods with more than one ingredient must have an ingredient list on the label. Ingredients are listed in descending order by weight. Those in the largest amounts are listed first. This information is particularly helpful to individuals with food sensitivities, those who wish to avoid pork or shellfish, limit added sugars, or people who prefer vegetarian eating.

Learn how to read nutrition labels before deciding whether to eat the food or not. If you’re a Type 2 diabetic, you must avoid ketchup. Ketchup contains sugar or high fructose corn syrup, or both. You should also avoid coffee creamers because they also contain sugar or sugar substitutes. Think you buying tuna packed in water because it says so on the front label. Think again. If you look at the Nutrition Fact panel, some tuna is packed in water and vegetable broth. What gives? And what’s in the vegetable broth? If you eat breakfast cereal, you might be surprised at how much sugar and other chemicals are added.

My best advice to you is to eat real food. An avocado or apple will provide you with more nutritional benefits than processed products.