New food labels will make healthy eating easier

When I was in college, studying to become a dietitian, I attended a nutrition seminar where breakfast was served. I grabbed Cheerios, skim milk, a banana and a blueberry muffin. The muffin came packaged with a label, which I read, as always — 250 calories, 10 grams of fat. After breakfast, I looked at that label again — this time checking the fine print. I was shocked! That 250 calories was for a serving size of half a muffin. WHO EATS HALF A MUFFIN? My sensible breakfast had become more than half the calories I should eat in a day!

Today, almost 10 years later, I teach people how to read food labels to maintain a healthy diet. That’s why I’m excited that the federal government is proposing new food labels — the first update in 20 years. In big, bold print, we’ll now know the number of servings in each package. This is especially important with packaged snacks, the kind we grab at the checkout line at the grocery store. Because they’re small, we often assume they’re only one serving. Mom or dad now read the back of a box of animal crackers and see they’re 150 calories — not too bad. Only if they study the fine print do they discover that’s for maybe a third of the animal crackers in the box. If their child eats the whole box, that’s close to 500 calories — equal to an entire meal. Childhood obesity is a huge problem in this country. Having these portions clearly stated on the package is a first step in making families more aware of what they’re eating.

If you want some help figuring out how many calories you should be aiming for in a day, and other great personalized nutrition advice, you might check out Choose My Plate, an online tool for better eating.

A second exciting change is the standardization of serving sizes. As a dietitian, I love spending hours at the grocery store reading labels. Most people I talk to try to spend as little time as possible at the grocery store — and even less reading food labels. Next time you’re in the grocery store, look at a couple of cereal boxes. Serving sizes range from two-thirds of a cup to 1¼ cups. You need a calculator to find out which cereal really offers the most fiber. With the new labels, all serving sizes will be based on one cup. That makes it a lot easier to decide which cereal has more of what you need, and less of what you don’t.

Another helpful change is that potassium is included on labels. About half my patients benefit from a low potassium diet, the others a diet high in potassium. It’s often been a guessing game for patients, who sometimes think they’re eating properly, only to learn from their doctor their potassium levels are way too high. Now, labels will clearly state potassium content — a happy development for lots of people.

Are the new food labels perfect? No, but they represent a big improvement. Food companies may complain about the cost of updating their labels but think about the potential billions in health care costs we could potentially save. Of course, having accurate and easy-to-read food labels doesn’t mean I won’t eat my occasional Reese’s mini peanut butter cups. However, I will know that each one has 18 calories. That beats having to calculate that number when the package only tells me the package contains 200 calories and 11 servings.

Saralyn Foster  is a registered dietitian at University Health System.