Food & TravelHealth & Wellness

Better Choices for Surprisingly Unhealthy Foods

Multi-grain on the label does not mean it is whole grain

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 many times do you browse the grocery aisles trying to discern the “best” pasta, cereal or bread? Most concerned healthy eaters know the obvious, like there is no fruit in “Froot Loops.” But what about “grown up foods”? You know, those labeled as “whole grain,” “all natural” or “healthy”?

Food Label Foolishness

There is much confusion for consumers who rely on the front of food packages to make their choices. Although “natural” should mean no artificial colors or ingredients, the term “natural” isn’t a guarantee that the product contains whole wheat or any fruits or vegetables at all.

Cut through the confusion and read the package from back to front – read the ingredient label first! Heed these tips to shop smart:


In your quest to find foods that nourish, do you purchase foods labeled “100% Natural,” “Healthy,” or “No Artificial Ingredients” without actually reading the ingredients? We’re at a disadvantage compared with countries such as 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 meat may be full of “natural flavors” and “naturally raised” doesn’t mean the animal isn’t raised on a factory farm. It also doesn’t mean that the animal has access to the outdoors. A can of iced tea can read “100% Natural Tea,” however the ingredients include filtered water, high fructose corn syrup and lemon flavoring. That’s not natural to me.


From breads to crackers to hot and cold cereals, “multi-grain” 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% whole grain,” so you’re assured that you’re getting all of the good nutrition from that grain’s kernel — the nutrients, including vitamin E and magnesium, and fiber. Some packages distract the consumer by touting impressive amounts of vitamins and minerals, even fiber. But, be a savvy consumer and look at the ingredients first if you’re interested in buying products without artificial colorings, flavors, excessive sugar and salt. Be sure the first ingredient is “100% whole,” either wheat or other grain, and remember, a teaspoon of sugar equals 4 grams. To know what you’re eating, read the serving size first, then the calories per serving, then how much fiber and finally how much sugar per serving.

Low Glycemic Index

Where “low carb” left off, the “low glycemic index” has taken over. The glycemic index ranks foods based on the 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 GI doesn’t include the amount of fiber in the food. A medium baked potato has a higher GI (85) than a Snickers bar (55), and who’d 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 easy to eat 50 carbohydrate grams of cookies (7 small cookies) but much tougher to eat 50 carbohydrate grams of carrots (5 cups of carrots) in one sitting! In the context of “healthy,” ignore the glycemic index and focus on whole foods, with fiber, in portions that are right for you.


The truth is, if it’s sugar, it’s sugarorganic or not, high fructose corn syrup, honey, cane sugar or white, maple syrup, or agave nectarall, nutritive sweeteners have approximately 16-20 calories per teaspoon, and negligible nutrition. They are all empty calories. I took a cruise through the breakfast aisle, and found “organic toaster pastries” but compared to conventional toaster pastries, there’s just as much sugar, and making it “organic” doesn’t make it lower in calories or higher in fiber. If you’re looking for a healthy breakfast that’s convenient and portable, choose a toaster waffle with whole grains.

“Free” Foods

Yes, we want to be free to eat what we like, and for many, that means fake foods that imitate sweets and desserts. However, foods labeled “low fat” or “fat free” does not make it 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 the regular, too. So, the most important thing to look at when you’re reading a label is not the calories, fat or sugar, but always, it’s the serving size that must be read first.

Note: “Fat Free” means less than a half a gram of fat per serving, “low fat” or “light” means less than 3 grams of fat per serving, and “reduced fat” means 25 percent less than the reference food. Mayonnaise illustrates this perfectly. The “reference,” original mayo, has 10 grams of fat per one tablespoon serving. The reduced fat version has 25 percent less fat, or 7.5 grams of fat per serving — still not a low fat food. But choose a “low fat” or “light” version, and you know it has 3 grams or less of fat per serving, a better choice.

Buyer Beware

Shop armed with information to help you read beyond the packaging and make weight-wise choices. And, of course, always shop with a list, never shop when you’re hungry, and read the ingredient label first. These three smart strategies help you keep the focus on healthy, good-for-you foods that taste good, too.

Making weight control second nature means shopping purposefully, refusing to be swayed by advertising, and taking the time to enjoy the flavor of real food. Your payoff will be better taste, improved nutrition and good health.

This article was contributed by Susan Burke March, MS, RD, LD/N, CDE

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