DEAR DOCTOR K: I know fruits and vegetables make the healthiest snacks. But can packaged foods also be part of my healthy snack arsenal?
DEAR READER: There’s no doubt that many packaged foods are not very healthy, so you’re right to ask the question. At the same time, an increasing number of healthy packaged foods are available. Identifying them has been made a lot easier by the action of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Since 1994, packaged foods in the U.S. must carry the Nutrition Facts label. You just need to learn how to use that label to judge what’s inside the package.
Here are some things to consider when looking at nutrition labels:
— Size matters. The word “serving” always mystified me: How much is a serving of something? I figured a slice of bread was one serving. But how many pancakes make up a serving? How much mashed potatoes? (The answers, I now know, are two 6-inch pancakes, and one cup of mashed potatoes.) Fortunately, the nutrition
labels on packaged foods tell you what a serving size is (it’s the first item on the label). All other information (how many calories and how much salt, fat, etc.) is based on that serving size. Beware: Many packages contain more than one serving.
— Check the fat and cholesterol content. Keep saturated fat and cholesterol low and avoid trans fats altogether. Look for foods that have 0 grams of trans fat. Stay away from foods that have “partially hydrogenated vegetable oil” in the ingredients list (that’s code for trans fats). Foods made with healthy unsaturated oils (olive, canola, safflower) are better bets.
— Is it worth its salt? Compare the sodium content to the calories per serving. To keep your salt intake in check, consider products in which the sodium content is less than or equal to the calories per serving. For example, for a food with 250 calories per serving, the sodium content should be no more than 250 mg. Or choose low-sodium, low-salt or unsalted versions.
— Figure out the fiber. Aim for foods that have at least 5 grams of fiber per serving, or at least 1 gram of fiber for every 10 grams of carbohydrate.
— Stay away from added sugars. Sugar contains almost no nutrients. It fills you up with empty calories, keeps you from eating healthy foods, and makes it difficult for your body to maintain a healthy blood sugar level. Steer clear of foods that have sugar, honey, molasses, corn syrup, corn sugar, fructose or high-fructose corn syrup among the first three ingredients. Other names for sugar include agave nectar, brown sugar, cane sugar, corn sweetener, dextrose, maltose, fruit juice concentrate and glucose.
Packaged foods have become an essential part of our fast-paced life. The Nutrition Facts label makes it possible for us to use packaged foods for meals and snacks — and to know if we’re eating healthy or not.
Dr. Anthony L. Komaroff is a physician and professor at Harvard Medical School. To send questions, go to AskDoctorK.com, or write: Ask Doctor K, 10 Shattuck St., Second Floor, Boston, MA 02115.