There is such a variety of food available that it’s usually possible to buy something that tastes great. The hard part can be choosing foods that are also healthy. In order to help Americans make good decisions when buying groceries, the Food and Drug Administration requires ingredient lists and nutrition labels on food packages.
Ingredient lists can help you avoid allergens and other foods your health care professional advises you not to eat. There’s also an economic reason to read ingredient lists: Since ingredients are listed in order of relative weights in the food, from greatest to least, you can determine whether you are paying more for whole or refined grains, fruit juice or water, or herbs and spices rather than salt. Finally, you can compare brands. For example, some may contain coconut, cottonseed or palm oils, which are higher in saturated fat than other oils. For this reason, you may want to choose another brand.
The nutrients that foods contain are listed on the nutrition label. The first fact on the label is serving size. For instance, the serving size listed for tortilla chips may read, “about 10 chips,” and there may be seven servings per container. If you eat the whole bag, you eat seven times the calories and nutrients shown, so check the serving size.
The first fact on the label is serving size. If you eat the whole bag, you eat seven times the calories and nutrients shown, so check the serving size.
Labels can be confusing because saturated fat, cholesterol and sodium contribute to chronic diseases, so less is better and the percent daily value listed is what is considered to be the maximum you should consume. Trans fats are so problematic that zero is best and no percent daily value is shown. Total carbohydrate is listed next, and carbs are broken down into fiber and sugars. Fiber promotes health, so opt for foods high in this nutrient.
Sugars are more complicated. While the sugars in foods like fruit and whole grains are digested at reasonable rates and these foods contain many beneficial nutrients, added sugars are quick to enter the bloodstream, contain few nutrients, and can be detrimental to health. Minimize your purchases of foods that include sugar, corn syrup, honey, agave, maltose, dextrose and similar sweeteners.
The next macronutrient listed is protein, and no percent daily value is listed on most packages. Getting enough protein is not a public health concern, except perhaps for the elderly, so this is one nutrient you needn’t worry about. At the bottom of labels are percent daily value data for vitamins A and C and minerals calcium and iron. It is worth paying attention to make sure you get enough of these nutrients.
Although not all foods are healthy, there are plenty of foods that are delicious and healthy, as indicated by package labels. Examples are in the recipe below.
The Benton-Franklin Community Health Alliance's monthly food column discusses how to reduce the risk or severity of health problems by eating better. Find more information at www.bfcha.org.
Orange Rice and Vegetables
Preparation time: 20 minutes. Servings: 4.
2 packages Uncle Ben’s Ready Rice, Whole Grain Brown
2 pounds frozen mixed vegetables, any variety without added salt
1 16-ounce package boneless, skinless chicken breasts or firm tofu, cut in bite-size pieces
8 tablespoons Kikkoman Orange Sauce or other Asian sauce, though check the sodium if substituting, as this sauce has 135 mg per 2 tablespoons and most others contain much more salt
4 tablespoons chopped cilantro, as an optional garnish
1 tablespoon black sesame seeds, as an optional garnish
Heat the rice and vegetables per the instructions on the packages. To cook the chicken or tofu, heat a skillet over medium high heat. When hot, spray briefly with cooking spray, add the chicken or tofu, and stir occasionally until cooked through.
To serve, place ½ package of rice and ½ pound of vegetables on each plate. Top with ¼ pound chicken breast or tofu and 2 tablespoons of sauce. Garnish with cilantro and sesame seeds, if desired.
Nutrition information per serving with chicken breasts: 458 calories, 6 grams fat, 1 gram saturated fat, no trans fat, 55 mg cholesterol, 418 mg sodium, 125 grams carbohydrates, 11 grams fiber, 27 grams sugars, 32 grams protein, 175 percent Vitamin A, 40 percent Vitamin C, 12 percent calcium, 20 percent iron. With tofu: 441 calories, 8 grams fat, 1 gram saturated fat, no trans fat or cholesterol, 188 mg sodium, 125 grams carbohydrates, 11 grams fiber, 27 grams sugars, 21 grams protein, 175 percent vitamin a, 38 percent vitamin c, 25 percent calcium, 22 percent iron.