Are you a label reader? If you are, you're in good company. A survey by the American Dietetic Association found that nearly 62 percent of grocery shoppers read the nutrition facts panel.
What are they looking for? The top five items shoppers are interested in are calories, total fat, calories from fat, plus sugar and sodium, according to a recent report from the NPD Group's Dieting Monitor.
The nutrients shoppers are trying to avoid? Number one is fat, followed by sugars, cholesterol, sodium and trans fats. The Dieting Monitor also identified the nutrients people are trying to maximize: whole grains, fiber, calcium, vitamin C and protein. Consumers are also seeking out foods with a short list of recognizable ingredients with minimal processing, according to the Natural Marketing Institute.
Two terms on the front of a package could sabotage weight management efforts: "Low fat" and "organic." Both are linked to overeating. The term "low fat" can lead people to infer that a food has fewer calories. And consumers even associate the term "organic" with low calorie, according to a 2010 study in the journal Judgment and Decision Making. In the study, college students who read labels for organic Oreo cookies described them as having fewer calories than the conventional Oreos. They also thought the organic cookies could be eaten more often than the non-organic ones.
Bonnie Taub-Dix, dietician and author of Read It Before You Eat It: How to Decode Food Labels and Make the Healthiest Choice Every Time and a motivational speaker from New York, points to three other common mistakes:
Taub-Dix, the mother of three sons, says children can start to scan a label with your help as soon as they know what numbers look like and represent.
What foods are best to start with? Little ones can look at breakfast cereals and milk. For example, show milk's calcium and protein levels. Older kids can critique energy bars and note how some are higher in sugar and/or fat with little fiber or protein value.
In addition to becoming nutrition smart, children who read food labels gain the benefit of improving their reading and math skills. Try this: If your kids love a breakfast cereal that's high in sugar-say 13 grams-combine it with one that's low in sugar (one gram). Together you can "do the math" and bring the sugar down to seven grams per serving.
Christine M. Palumbo, RD, is a nutritionist living in Naperville.
See more of Christine's stories here.