What is a healthy food? Understanding nutrition labels

Woman checking food labelling at grocery store

What is healthy food nowadays? Should you eat eggs? What type of cooking oil should you use? Is yogurt actually a good source of protein? Is some fat really good for you? With all of the conflicting information out there, you may find it difficult to know what foods make up a healthy diet.

Nutrition is a rapidly changing and evolving field. And, the information can be confusing. A recent survey conducted by Morning Consult for The New York Times found that even nutrition experts often don’t agree on what’s healthy and what’s not.

Close to 700 nutritionists and 2,000 registered voters were asked their views on whether 52 common foods were good or bad for you. While most respondents agreed on the obvious ones (spinach is healthy, burgers and fries are not), they did not on whether items such as granola bars, quinoa or popcorn are healthy.

This survey shows just how confusing nutrition information has become.

Nutrition Facts Label

The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has updated guidelines to help clear up some of the misconceptions. Banner Health Registered Dietitian and Nutritionist Chrystine Cherry provided an overview of the upcoming FDA changes to Nutrition Facts Labels:

  • Serving size: Bold type on the new label and will now be equal to what a typical person would eat – not just what they should eat.
  • Calories: Larger type. The hope is, by increasing awareness of the intended serving size, the number of calories will have more impact.
  • Percentage of Daily Value: Updated to reflect current FDA nutrition guidelines.
  • Calories from fat: Discontinued. Consumers should focus more on the importance of getting the right types of fat rather than just calories.
  • Added Sugars: Now included as part of Total Carbohydrates. Using the current label, many consumers believe that “Sugars” means “Added Sugars,” when that really isn’t the case. “Added Sugars” are sources of sugar added to the food. The sugar in chocolate syrup added to chocolate milk is an example. However, “Sugars” by itself, as is currently on the label, simply refers to the carbohydrate in the food that is not starch (a more complex form of carbohydrate). Plain old milk contains “Sugars” by that definition – but that doesn’t mean to avoid milk. A certain amount of sugar is naturally present in milk. It’s the “Added Sugars” people should cut back on. By making this distinction on the label, it should be easier for people to keep their total calorie intake of these added sugars at or below the goal of 10 percent of total calories.
  • Vitamin D and Potassium: Added to label. We now know it’s important to get adequate amounts of these to aid in preventing chronic illnesses such as diabetes and hypertension. Iron and calcium will remain on this label.
  • Vitamin C and Vitamin A: No longer included on the label as deficiencies of these nutrients are actually quite rare.

The FDA notes that these changes go into effect July 2018, so more changes may come before that date.

Cherry said the best advice for making sure you are meeting your nutritional needs is to consult with a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist. Consult with your Primary Care Physician to find a good one in your area.

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