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Become a Label Detective

A dietitian explains how to interpret nutrition information

Nutritional information on foodWhen the U.S. Department of Agriculture released its dietary guidelines for Americans, it offered familiar advice: Control calorie intake and eat less saturated fat while consuming larger amounts of key nutrients such as vitamin D and dietary fiber.

Many Americans know that these kinds of changes can help prevent obesity and promote better health. But it can be difficult to make such changes in a grocery store lined with products that make a dizzying array of health claims — from "low fat" and "light" to "high fiber" and "high calcium."

Hâle Deniz-Venturi, MS, a registered dietitian at the Nutrition and Wellness Center at Rush, offers some tips on navigating the food label maze.

Q: So many foods come with health claims. Should we pay attention to them?

Deniz-Venturi: The Food and Drug Administration limits the kinds of claims food manufacturers can make, but these claims still don't tell the whole story. So when you're shopping for packaged foods, don't pay too much attention to the front of the box.

Take the health claims with a grain of salt and really look at the nutrition facts label and the ingredient list — that's the guts of it. Those things will give you much more information than any claims used to market the product.

Because the food industry is so big, and every time you go into the grocery store there are more and more products, you really do need to be a good label detective.

Q: What should we look for on the label?

Deniz-Venturi: It's better to concentrate on a few things rather than trying to take in all the information at once. You can drive yourself crazy trying to find a product that has the right amount of fiber, the right amount of salt, the right amount of fat, the right amount of everything.

But you'll never find the perfect food, because it doesn't exist. It's better to focus on your specific goals.

Are you trying to limit sodium? Eat more whole grains? Then focus on checking labels for those things.

Another important thing to look for is the ingredient list. In most cases, fewer ingredients is better, since that means that the food hasn’t been processed as much and doesn't have as much added to it, so it's more of a whole, or unprocessed, food.

Q: Would it be better, then, to avoid packaged foods altogether?

Deniz-Venturi: Not necessarily. It is important to focus primarily on whole foods, including fruits, vegetables, whole grains and lean proteins. But some packaged foods, such as cereals with more than five grams of fiber per serving, can be good choices.

There can be a place for anything, really, in your diet; it's how you balance it that matters. It's all about balance, variety and moderation: These are the basics that always work.