How to read a food label

By Janette Skaar, clinical dietitian at CHOC Children’s

Trying to eat healthier may be a goal you’ve set for your family this year. Even with the best intentions, it may seem confusing with all the choices available in the aisles of your favorite grocery store. Shoppers today have more options than ever before. Sorting through food labels and checking prices may seem like a daunting task. Understanding food labels is key to making the best choices for you and your family.

Natural: The USDA allows the term “natural” to be used on meat and poultry that contains no artificial ingredients or added color. It must also be minimally processed. It does not address food production methods, such as use of growth hormones or pesticides, or potential health or nutrition benefits. The FDA has not provided any formal definition or regulation of the term “natural” on food or beverage labeling.

Processed or unprocessed: These terms may be easily misunderstood. We generally think of anything “processed” as being unhealthy, with lots of additives, like boxed mac and cheese or potato chips. “Unprocessed” foods may be healthier, since they are not in a package, frozen or canned.

The USDA defines processed as a food that has had a change in character. Roasted nuts, pre- washed spinach, and whole wheat bread are also processed, as well as anything we cut, cook or bake. Pasteurized milk is processed with heat to 161 degrees for 20 seconds to kill listeria, salmonella and E. coli, which reduces the risk of serious illness from these bacteria.  Some foods are made more nutrient dense, for example when milk and juices are fortified with calcium and Vitamin D.

This means not all processed food is unhealthy. However, we should aim to do more food prep at home, when possible, and select minimally processed foods, such as cut vegetables or frozen fruit, rather than heavily processed foods like pizza and microwave dinners. Eating too many heavily processed foods adds hidden sugar and sodium to our diets that may increase the risk for diabetes and heart disease.

Whole foods: There is no regulated definition of this term, but it generally refers to foods that are in their simplest form, that are not processed and do not have added ingredients.

100% whole grain: There is a difference between the phrases “100% whole grain” and “made with whole grains.” Whole grains contain the entire grain kernel and include whole wheat flour, bulgur or cracked wheat, oatmeal, whole cornmeal, and brown rice. Refined grains refer to grains that have been processed to remove the gran and germ. A food may have a very small percentage of whole grains in the ingredients and still carry the label “made with whole grains.” The Whole Grains Council developed the 100% Whole Grain Stamp and the Basic Stamp to help shoppers identify which foods are good sources of whole grains, and not just white bread disguised as whole grains. Check the list of ingredients. Since manufacturers must list the ingredients in descending order, the first ingredient should start with the word whole, such as whole wheat flour or whole grain rye flour.

Local: Buying locally grown and in-season fruits and vegetables means eating foods that taste fresher, have retained more of their nutrients, and cost less.

The terms local and locally grown refer to the distance between farm and market and may mean less than 100 miles, or even 450 miles, if you are a large grocery store chain. Buying local is becoming more important to shoppers concerned about their carbon footprint and their desire to lessen the impact of food production and transportation on the environment, while supporting local farmers and communities. Farmer’s markets offer the opportunity to talk to local growers and ask questions about their farming methods. Some use a mixture of organic and conventional methods.

Organic: This term has the most specific and legal meaning.  The term organic means crops are grown with fewer pesticides, no synthetic fertilizers or genetically modified organisms and farm animals are raised without the use of routine antibiotics and are given organic feed

There are three tiers to the USDA labeling standards. To display the USDA’s organic seal of approval, the

product must meet the top two requirements:

  • “100% organic” which means it contains 100% organic ingredients
  • “Organic” indicating it contains at least 95% organic ingredients
  • “Made with organic (ingredient)” indicates it contains at least 70% organically produced ingredients

The USDA organic seal is a simple way to know if you are purchasing a primarily organic food product.

Conventionally grown: You won’t find this term on your fruits and vegetables, but it refers to the growing and production of foods with traditional farming practices, which may include chemical pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers to enhance growth. Livestock may be given antibiotics and hormones to improve their growth and prevent disease.

Organic vs Conventional? There is research support for organic foods having lower pesticide levels, as well as organically raised animals less likely to be contaminated with drug resistant bacteria. The verdict on long term health outcomes of eating organic vs conventional foods is still out.

If the price of organic produce is a concern, families can use shopper’s guides provided by Consumer Reports or the Environmental Working Group to help them choose conventional foods with lower pesticide residue. These are commonly referred to as the Dirty Dozen and the Clean Fifteen:

Dirty Dozen: Strawberries, spinach, kale, nectarines, apples, grapes, peaches, cherries, pears, tomatoes, celery, potatoes

Clean Fifteen: Avocados, sweet corn, pineapples, sweet peas (frozen), onions, papayas, eggplant, asparagus, kiwi, cabbage, cauliflower, cantaloupe, broccoli, mushroom, honeydew melon

Whether choosing organic or conventionally grown foods, increasing your intake of fresh fruits, vegetables, and whole grains is recommended. Focus on eating a variety of foods, including those with rich colors.

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Spring clean your family’s eating habits

By Monika Frauzem dietetic technician, registered

March is not only the kick-off of spring;it’s also National Nutrition Month! Spring is not simply  a good opportunity for traditional spring cleaning, but also an ideal time to make positive changes to your eating habits.

With a greater variety of fruits and vegetables hitting the markets this time of year, it is easier to meet the recommendation of filling half of your plate with fruits and vegetables. The USDA MyPlate program is a model for healthy eating.  For those of us withambitious goals to pursue, focusing on small changes is more realistic. There is no magic recipe; food variety and moderation are key ingredients to healthy eating.

Here are a few easy ways to spring clean your family’s eating habits:

Mindful eating: Focusing on mindful eating helps control portion sizes and lets you enjoy the different flavors of your food. Fruits and vegetables are the most flavorful when bought in season.

Shop outside:  Farmers’ markets are ideal places to shop for seasonal produce.Sustainability and encouraging market development in underserved areas are just two reasons to support your local farmers’ market.  Programs such as the Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) program and the Commodity Supplemental Food Program (CSFP) offer access to more fresh fruit and vegetables to low income families and provide vouchers that are accepted at many farmers’ markets.

Shopping at the local farmers’ market is not only fun, it also supports local businesses. It is a great place to by organic produce, locally baked goods, local cheeses, and oils. Three out of four farmers who sell at farmers’ markets use farming practices that meet or exceed organic standards.

Get your kids involved: Some vendors at farmers’ markets come equipped with recipe cards and are happy to share recipe ideas and give advice on cooking and storing various kinds of produce. They let you know when the season is at its peak and when it is winding down. This is a great way to get your kids involved with learning about where food comes from and to see fruits and vegetables that may be unfamiliar. Samples are often available so you can taste what you are about to purchase—another good way to get your children to try something new!

Meal plan: Allow yourself to be surprised by the selection at the market as well as inform yourself on the seasons for produce grown in your area. If you know what you will find at the market it is easier to make meal plans and a grocery list in advance. This helps you avoid overbuying, and reduces food waste. Check out these healthy meal prep tips for busy parents.

Celebrate National Nutrition Month and the launch of spring by taking time to explore your local farmers’ market with your family and enjoy the goods it has to offer. You might find a new favorite food!

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Family-Friendly Healthy Eating on a Budget

By Christina Wright-Yee, registered dietitian at CHOC Children’s

Eating healthy on a budget doesn’t have to be expensive or time consuming. By following these tips, you can be on your way to a balanced diet and budget!

PLAN

  • Determine a food budget for your family. Use the Spend Smart, Eat Smart App to calculate your family’s weekly grocery budget to meet each family member’s nutrition needs and stay in budget!
  • Plan a menu based on your family schedule for a week at a time, building the menu around foods you already have in the house. Consider planning for left-overs for another night in the week.
  • Write down a list of all of your grocery items by category based on your menu. More trips to the grocery store can often lead to more impulse purchases. Grocery shop on a regular day of the week that works for you and your family, or for the deals of your preferred stores. Reading grocery flyers can help you determine what’s on sale and in season to help you create your grocery shopping list.

SHOP

  • Eat before you shop. Going shopping while hungry often leads to spontaneous and unhealthy purchases.
  • Compare prices. Food items at eye level tend to be more expensive. Instead, look for store-brand version of the same products that tend to be more cost-effective. Look at the price per unit when comparing products to find the best value.
  • Reach for the back of food items in the produce, dairy and meat sections to get the freshest foods, with expiration dates furthest away.
  • Try other options in each food group:
    • Fruits and vegetables:
      • Buy fruits and veggies that are in season in their simplest form.  Pre-cut, washed and ready-to-eat foods tend to be more expensive.
      • Buy fruit canned in 100 percent fruit juice or canned vegetables with labels that mention low sodium or no salt added.
      • Frozen fruits and vegetables tend to last longer and are just as good for you as fresh ones.
    • Grains:
      • Pick whole grain options for rice and pasta, including:  whole wheat, brown rice, bulgur, buckwheat, oatmeal, whole oats and whole rye.
      • Buy oatmeal in bulk instead of pre-packaged sweetened versions. You’ll get more for your dollar and enjoy more health benefits too!
      • Look for breads in the clearance section. Freeze what you don’t use and pull out of the freezer as needed.
    • Protein foods:
      • Low cost protein options include: beans, peas and lentils. Limit pre-marinated meats as they tend to be more expensive and add more sodium (salt) to your diet.
      • Buy family-size or value packs of lean meats, such as chicken or turkey, and freeze portions you can defrost as needed.
      • Canned tuna and salmon stores well and are less expensive than fresh fish.   Opt for a canned version in water rather than one canned in oil. Check to make sure the can is BPA-free, is not dented or discolored, and is not bulging or cracked.
    • Dairy foods:
      • Choose low-fat (1 percent) or fat-free (0 percent) milk and reduced fat or low-fat cheeses.
      • Buy a larger container of yogurt and pre-portion the yogurt yourself, rather than buying the individual containers.
    • Other tips:
      • Drink water instead of sodas and juices.
      • Keep most of your shopping around the outside edges of the store, as it tends to be where the freshest and healthiest options are stored.

COOK

  • Keep it simple. Let kids dip their raw veggies into hummus, Greek yogurt or even light ranch instead of cooking the veggies.
  • Prepare double or even triple batches of vegetable soups, stews or casseroles on days you are less busy and freeze the leftovers to pull out for a quick meal on days you are short on time.
  • Cook extra meats and use it multiple ways during the week. For example, baked chicken can become shredded chicken to top a salad, put in a taco or in a casserole.

Remember, by portioning out your foods and focusing on healthy portion sizes, you’ll eat the right amount, which also saves money and your family’s health.

nutrition
The MyPlate model shows a great visual way to balance food groups.

 

Get important nutrition tips like these sent straight to your inbox

Kids Health, delivered monthly, offers “healthful” information for parents.

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Health Benefits of Winter Spices

By Joyelle Temming, registered dietitian at CHOC Children’s

As the days get shorter and colder, it’s always comforting to take in the fragrant smell of winter spices.  Cinnamon, cloves, ginger, nutmeg and anise have aromas that are reminiscent of the holidays. It may surprise you that they have many health benefits too.

The winter season is synonymous with the common cold, so it’s a wonderful time to add spices to your diet that contain antibacterial properties and antioxidants that can help keep your immune system healthy! While spices should not be a substitute for medical treatment or prescription medicine under the supervision of a medical provider, incorporating spices into your daily cooking may help cut back on excessive sugar and salt as well as boost your overall well-being. All spices are naturally low in saturated fat and cholesterol and are a healthier alternative to sugar and salt to add flavor to your food.

Here are five common winter spices and their surprising health benefits:

  1. Cinnamon
  • Lowers fasting blood sugar
  • Provides relief from arthritis
  • Contains polyphenols that fight bacteria and boost your immune system
  • Lowers bad cholesterol
  • Contains antioxidants that help reduce oxidative stress that can contribute to the development of chronic disease
  • Contains four grams of fiber per one tablespoon of cinnamon
  1. Cloves
  • Improves blood circulation
  • Clears the respiratory passages
  • Improves digestion
  • Contains antioxidants, particularly a compound called eugenol that has been shown to have anti-cancer properties
  • Contains fiber, vitamins, and minerals such as manganese, vitamin K and vitamin C
  • Strengthens immune system, improves blood clotting, and maintains brain function
  1. Nutmeg
  • Nutmeg oil is a proven pain reliever
  • Soothes indigestion
  • Relieves insomnia and depression
  • Improves cholesterol levels and regulates blood pressure levels
  • Contains antibacterial properties with the potential to inhibit activity of bacteria that causes periodontitis and helps prevent tooth decay
  1. Ginger
  • Suppresses nausea
  • Reduces bloating, gas, and constipation
  • Minimizes menstrual cramps
  • Contains enzymes and antioxidants that help fight bacterial infections and boost the immune system
  • Fights inflammation
  • Aids weight loss and has promise in decreasing body fat by preventing overeating, improving energy levels and stopping fat generation in the body
  1. Anise
  • Contains antioxidants Vitamin A and Vitamin C
  • Excellent source of many essential B-complex vitamins such as pyridoxine, niacin, riboflavin, thiamin; contains minerals like calcium, iron, copper, potassium, manganese, zinc and magnesium
  • Has antifungal properties specific to candida, a naturally occurring fungus found in the throat, mouth, and intestines
  • Best natural source of Shikimic acid, which is used in the anti-flu medication Tamiflu
  • May have mild sedative properties for sleep

These spices can be a great addition to recipes during the winter when fresh produce is harder to find. To maximize health benefits, keep in mind that fresh spices are recommended over dried spices.

Try these seasonal recipes with your family to incorporate winter spices into your diet:

Chai Concentrate

4 ½ cups water

1 stick cinnamon

Fresh ginger, smashed (about 5 thin slices)

7 whole cardamom pods, smashed

2 whole star anise pods

10 whole cloves

¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1 teaspoon orange zest

10 teaspoons loose tea or 10 tea bags

2/3 cup brown sugar

1 Tablespoon honey

1 Tablespoon vanilla

Directions:

Bring water to a boil. Remove from heat.  Add all of the ingredients and let steep for 15-20 minutes.  Strain out the bags and spices.  Mix equal parts concentrate to milk. Will keep in the refrigerator for two weeks.

Whole Wheat Sweet Potato Muffins

1 sweet potato

2 cups whole wheat flour

1 teaspoon baking soda

½ teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg

¼ teaspoon ground ginger

¼ teaspoon ground cloves

¼ cup vegetable oil

2 eggs, lightly beaten

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1 cup honey

1 (6 ounce) container vanilla yogurt

½ cup oatmeal

½ cup brown sugar

½ cup almonds

1 teaspoon cinnamon

Directions:

  1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit. Grease 16 muffin cups or line with paper muffin liners; set aside. Prick sweet potato several times with a fork and place onto a baking sheet.
  2. Bake the sweet potato in the preheated oven until easily pierced with a fork, about 40 minutes. When the potato is cool enough to handle, peel and mash.
  3. Reduce the oven temperature to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.
  4. Whisk together the flour, baking soda, salt, the 1 teaspoon cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, and cloves. Stir in the vegetable oil, eggs, vanilla, honey, yogurt, and mashed sweet potato, just until all ingredients are moistened. Spoon batter evenly into prepared muffin cups.
  5. Blend together the oatmeal, brown sugar, almonds, and the remaining 1 teaspoon cinnamon in a food processor or blender. Sprinkle topping over unbaked muffins.
  6. Bake muffins in the preheated oven until golden and the tops spring back when lightly pressed, 12 to 15 minutes.

Recipe Source: All Recipes

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5 Ways to Reduce Intake of Food Additives

By Jessica Brown, registered dietitian at CHOC Children’s

When buying packaged products, it’s important to limit our consumption of common food additives. Direct food additives are natural or synthetic substances added to foods during processing to help enhance flavor, texture, appearance or nutrition, or to extend shelf-life.

Well-known additives include high fructose corn syrup, a sweetener; sodium nitrates, a preservative; and monosodium glutamate or MSG, a flavor enhancer. However, there are nearly 4,000 direct food additives registered on the Food and Drug Administration database.

Food additives to look out for include:

Humectants and Anticaking Agents

  • What they do: Stabilize foods through moisture control to maintain texture, reduce microbial activity, and prevent clumping.
  • Commonly added to: grated cheese, marshmallows, baked goods, baking powder, flour and cake mixes.
  • Examples include: Sugar and salt are commonly used humectants. However, most anticaking agents are made from synthetic substances such as silicon dioxide and aluminosilicates.

Emulsifiers

  • What they do: Prevent separation, provide a smooth texture, and extend shelf-life.
  • Commonly added to: mayonnaise, salad dressings, peanut butter, chocolate, and ice-cream.
  • Examples include: Egg lecithin, monoglycerides and diglycerides (naturally present in seed oils), guar gum, and carrageenan. Synthetic forms include carboxymethyl cellulose and polysorbate 80.

Stabilizers, Thickeners, and Gelling Agents

  • What they do: Provide a consistent texture and mouth-feel.
  • Commonly added to: jams, yogurts, soups, sauces and dressings.
  • Examples include: Cornstarch, pectin, and lecithin. Although synthetic versions exist such as carboxymethyl cellulose and methyl cellulose.

Color Additives

  • What they do: Enhance the natural colors in a food, compensate for color variation in foods, or add color to an otherwise colorless food.
  • Commonly added to: candies, breakfast cereal, beverages, and snack foods.
  • Examples include: Synthetic colors such as Yellow No. 5 and Blue No. 1. Plant, animal or mineral colorants are also added to foods such as grape skin extract, annatto, beta-carotene, or cochineal extract.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recently published a policy regarding the emerging child health concerns related to the direct and indirect food additives.

5 tips to reduce your family’s intake of food additives:

  1. Read ingredient labels
    • Compare products while at the grocery store. Many manufactures are making comparable products with less food additives.
    • Identify hidden sources of food additives such as silicon dioxide in spices or polysorbate 80 in dairy products.
  2. Decrease intake of processed foods
    • Choose fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds, and animal products with minimal processing.
    • Make dishes from scratch when feasible to control which ingredients are incorporated into your food.
  3. Eat locally
    • Farmers markets or CSA (community supported agriculture) deliveries are a wonderful way to reduce food additives not only by choosing fresh fruits and vegetables, but in local canned and bottled products too.
  4. Make simple swaps
    • Make air-popped popcorn in place of microwaved popcorn
    • Swap blocked cheese for shredded cheese
    • Choose butter instead of margarine
    • Use maple syrup or honey in place of pancake syrup
    • Incorporate fresh herbs and spices instead of marinades and sauces
    • Choose plain chips and crackers more often than flavored options
    • Swap plain yogurt for flavored varieties and add your own toppings
  5. Get creative in the kitchen
    • Make your own salad dressing, dips, or taco seasoning
    • Use fresh citrus or herbs to flavor sparkling water

Use natural ingredients to decorate your cookies this holiday season. Use beet juice or powder for red icing, and wheatgrass juice or matcha powder for green icing

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration offers additional information on food additives.

Get important nutrition tips like these sent straight to your inbox

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Related posts:

  • How to read a food label
    Eating healthy can be confusing with all the choices available in your grocery store. Learning how to read a food label is key to making the best choices.
  • Spring clean your family’s eating habits
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  • Family-Friendly Healthy Eating on a Budget
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