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July 23, 2008 > Making Sense of Food Labels

Making Sense of Food Labels

Washington Hospital Class Offers Tips for Making Healthy Choices at the Store

Everyone knows fruits and vegetables are good for you, but what about that granola bar? We all want to eat healthier, but unhealthy ingredients are often hidden in the packaged foods we eat. What sounds healthy may not be.
Just about every package of food you pick up in this country has a food label on it that lists serving size and other nutritional information. Food labels provide valuable information for making food choices, but understanding them can be difficult.
"The food label is only helpful if you know what it's telling you," said Lorie Roffelsen, a registered dietitian at Washington Hospital who will teach an upcoming class on the subject that includes a trip to the grocery store. "The class is about reading food labels, understanding the information, and using it to make healthy and consumer-wise choices at the grocery store."
"Marketwise Nutrition Class" is scheduled for Saturday, August 2, from 7:30 to 10:30 a.m., at the Washington Women's Center, 2500 Mowry Avenue in Fremont. The class is limited to 15 participants and registration is required. The fee is $25 and a credit card number must be provided at the time of registration. Call (510) 608-1301 to register.
Starting in the classroom, Roffelsen provides an overview of food labels and the kinds of nutritional information you can find there, including fat, cholesterol, calories, sodium, carbohydrates, dietary fiber, sugars, protein, vitamins and minerals. The label also includes a list of ingredients.
Roffelsen points out that the information on the label is based on a single serving. Serving size is critical for knowing how much you are eating. If there are three servings in the package and you eat all of it, you have to multiply the amounts of fat, calories, sodium, carbohydrates and other nutrients on the label by three to know what you actually consumed.
Roffelsen also teaches participants how to understand ingredient lists and know how much fat, calories, sodium and other nutrients most people should eat using the daily allowance guide on the label.
"Ingredient lists start with the predominant ingredient and go down in descending order to the smallest ingredient," Roffelsen said. "So if the list starts with sugar, you know the product is mostly made of sugar."
At the Grocery Store
Armed with their new knowledge about food labels, the class heads to the grocery store to test it out and practice making better choices. Roffelsen guides them through the store.
"People need the most help deciphering labels on packaged foods, so we don't spend much time in the produce department," she said. "I do like to point out a few nutrient-rich fruits and vegetables that everyone should try to incorporate into their diet."
Roffelsen talks about some of the confusing label issues. For example, it's important to eat whole grains instead of white flour. But when a label lists "wheat flour" it doesn't mean the whole grain is used. It has to list "100 percent whole wheat" or "whole grain." She also talks about what the word "organic" actually means and when it might be best to choose organic.
After shopping, the group returns to the classroom to prepare some of the items they purchase. Participants will get the chance to taste some healthier versions of familiar foods like low-fat cheese or low-sodium soup.
"Salt is such a big issue in processed and packaged foods because sodium is used for preserving and flavoring," said Roffelsen, who provides the class with a number of seasoning options to help reduce sodium intake.
'This class is for anyone who eats and grocery shops," Roffelsen said. "It helps you know how to compare foods and make healthier choices. Most foods can fit into your diet as long as you plan for it. You can still eat some of your favorite treats, but reading labels is a way to know what you are eating and keep it under control."

Register for the Marketwise Nutrition Class Today!
To get marketwise, attend the upcoming class by registering at (510) 608-1301. To see a full list of upcoming Washington Women's Center lectures and exercise classes, visit, choose the tab titled: "Services and Programs" and then select "Women's Health" and "Wellness Classes & Services" from the drop-down menu.

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