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The only ingredient you need to look for on a food label

Do you spend too much time reading the Nutrition Facts label on food products when shopping? Are you unsure of which ingredients are important? And how about those percentages: Is 13% too much sodium per serving? Is there too much fat in this product?

You shouldn't need a master's degree in nutritional science (as nutritionists like I do) to decipher a food label. Still, I often need to guide my clients and teach my undergraduate students how the label should be read to meet a consumer's particular needs.

If you have high cholesterol or diabetes, you may be reading the nutrition labels to lower your cholesterol or control blood sugar. But which fats should you be looking for and how much is too much? Why is sugar listed in grams, when Americans do not regularly use the metric system?

There's no doubt the nutrition facts are more confusing than necessary. The labels are in the process of being revamped, but, unfortunately, the deadline has been extended. So, if you're looking to improve your healthy food choices, this article will help clear up the confusion.

Nutrition Facts label for an apple

Nutrition Facts courtesy of the National Agricultural Library, Agricultural Research Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Why is there a Nutrition Facts label?

Only foods processed in any way, from pitted dates to frozen dinners, are required to have nutrition labels. Label requirements are regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). However, if a fresh apple had a nutrition label, this is what the label would display (see above).

If you have diabetes, you'd look at the sugar measurement. At 19 grams, or nearly 5 tsp, that looks too high. Someone with high cholesterol might like the fact that there is no trans fat fat, a good thing (and not just for high cholesterol). An athlete might say, hey, there's no protein in this food, and choose a protein powder instead.

But an apple a day really does keep the doctor away, so which ingredient should you look for on this label?

A nutritious breakfast with hemp seeds, berries, and nuts

Plant power

The secret ingredient on any food label is the fiber content. The higher the fiber, the more likely the food is nutritious, will keep you fuller, and is probably less processed. For example, although the sugar content might strike you as high in the apple (and portions are important for those with diabetes), the fiber in the apple will delay the blood sugar rise and actually help to control blood sugar.

While there's no fat in the apple, we do need a small amount of fat in our foods to absorb vitamins like vitamin A, so it's not always the most important ingredient to give up on. And the fact that the apple doesn't have protein is not critical. Most of us get more protein than we need every day, and athletes are usually very aware of the need to eat more protein, depending on their workout.

So, chances are, the higher the fiber in the product, the better chance the food will improve your health and you won't need to examine the rest of the label with a magnifying glass, searching for nutrients or added ingredients.

How much fiber do we need?

Most processed foods are devoid of fiber, or have the wrong kind. Fiber is a necessary ingredient for overall health, from our gut to our immune system. Both prebiotics and probiotics are found in plant fibers, and help to keep our digestive system happy and well-fed. Meat or fish do not have fiber, although they have other nutrients. The best source of fiber are fruits and vegetables, whether frozen, canned, or fresh.

The fiber requirement was recently raised to 25 grams for women and 38 grams for men. What does that look like in a day? You can reach your fiber needs by eating the following every day:

  • From a half-cup to a cup a day of beans

  • A sandwich with 2 slices of high-fiber, whole grain bread

  • Two fruits, for example, a cup of berries and an apple

That's not too difficult, is it? Think tacos stuffed with black beans, whole fruits, and a peanut butter sandwich. For example, a high fiber bread might range from 5 grams or more for each slice. This whole rye bread has 6 grams of fiber per slice, a good choice.

high fiber bread, dense with nutrients

Of course, always follow your dietitian or doctor's recommendations for your nutritional requirements, especially if you have allergies or any digestive diseases. Otherwise, quit spending so much time examining labels, and just search for the fiber content to be as high as possible.

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