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How to Read Food Labels for a Heart-Healthy Diet

What’s worth knowing about the first ingredient listed on a food label? How can you decode the words you see on labels? Learn more about food labels and how to benefit your heart.

nutrition facts
What the Experts Do
A Heart-Smart Start

Looking for a nutritious breakfast that fuels your body and helps your heart? Johns Hopkins exercise physiologist Kerry J, Stewart, Ed.D., likes to start his day with cereal, berries and yogurt, and he explains why it’s good for his heart.

Cereal: “Oatmeal is a great source of fiber, but I don’t like it myself, so I choose a different high-fiber packaged cereal. On the label, my favorite cereal appears to be high in carbohydrates, but when you subtract how many of those total carbohydrates are actually dietary fiber, you can see that they’re good carbs. In general if you take the total carbs and subtract the fiber, you get net carbs, a better indicator of what the body will absorb into the blood stream. The lower the net carbs, the better."

Berries: “I usually choose blueberries, which are anti-inflammatory and not as high in sugar as bananas.”

Yogurt: “I choose a low-fat brand that’s marketed as ‘diabetes friendly’ on the label, which means it’s low in carbohydrates. You get all the benefit of yogurt with far fewer carbs. Greek yogurt is also a good choice because most brands have fewer carbs than regular yogurt. Compare the labels—some low-fat yogurts contain a lot of added sugar. Also, the total amount of fats isn’t as important as the total amount of carbs.” 

Today’s food labels carry a lot more information than ever. But simply reading a label isn’t enough. It’s important for you to know how to interpret the words and terms in order to consume a diet that will benefit your heart and overall health.

See how well you can decode a food label:

1. What’s the most important number on a food label?

a. Calories

b. Total fat

c. Servings per container

d. Sodium

Answer: C. Servings per container.

“A lot of people don’t pay attention to serving size when they read nutrition labels, so they wind up getting double, triple or even quadruple the amount of calories, carbs, fats and so on that they think they are,” says Johns Hopkins exercise physiologist Kerry J, Stewart, Ed.D.

The label’s Nutrition Facts data reflect the amounts in a single serving. However, one seemingly small container or package can hold as much as four or even more servings.

2. What is the percent daily value based on?

a. The average American’s diet

b. A 2,000-calorie-a-day diet

c. The ideal diet to aim for

Answer: B. A 2,000-calorie-a-day diet.

The percent daily value numbers on a Nutrition Facts label are based on a 2,000-calorie diet. You may need to eat more or fewer calories and nutrients depending on your size, health status, health goals and doctor’s recommendation.

3. What’s another name for trans fats?

a. Partially hydrogenated oil

b. Omega-3 fatty acid

c. Olive oil

d. Butter

Answer: A. Partially hydrogenated oil.

Be on the watch for both trans fats and hydrogenated oil in ingredients lists. Trans fats, which raise bad cholesterol levels, aren’t listed as such in the ingredients. Rather, you have to watch for ingredients that contain trans fats, mainly hydrogenated oil and partially hydrogenated oil. Canola and olive oil don’t contain trans fats. Omega-3 fatty acids, found in many foods (such as fish), are a different type of fat that’s good for you.

4. What’s important to know about the first ingredient listed on a label?

a. It’s the healthiest.

b. It’s in the largest quantity.

c. It’s first due to alphabetical order.

Answer: B. It’s in the largest quantity.

Look for wholesome ingredients in the first spot, like vegetables or whole grains, rather than sugars or other fillers (such as carbohydrates, which are often high in calories). The order of the ingredients doesn’t tell you how much of each ingredient is in the food, however. You need to read the other nutrition data on the label to interpret how much sodium, sugar or nutrients you’re getting.

5. What words should I look out for that mean sugar?

a. High-fructose corn syrup

b. Agave nectar

c. Dehydrated cane juice

d. All of the above

Answer: D. All of the above.

Sugar, which provides mostly empty calories that don’t boost heart health, can appear several times on an ingredient list because different forms of it have been used in different amounts. But they do add up. Other terms to beware: corn syrup, barley malt syrup, dextrose, sucrose, maltose and any word ending in “ose.” 

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