WHEN SHOULD I WORRY ABOUT...

5 Nutrition Label Red Flags to Watch Out For

Oct. 12, 2022 - Katie McCallum

A lot of the foods we eat these days are packaged, which usually means at least somewhat processed. Some are even ultra-processed.

So to be sure we're making healthy choices, we need to be fairly savvy at reading nutrition-facts labels — understanding which are healthy nutrients and which are additives or ingredients we don't necessarily need.

"The more we can get people to look at food-nutrition labels, the better," says Angela Snyder, a wellness dietitian at Houston Methodist. "Everyone's nutritional goals will be slightly different, but there are some things everyone should try to limit, no matter who it is looking at the label."

So grab your favorite snack or meal item and take a look at the label. Snyder shares five red flags to look for below.

Red flag #1: Added sugars

Added sugars are refined forms of sugar added during food processing, typically to make the food taste better. The problem with added sugars is that we have no nutritional need for them.

Naturally-occurring sugars, on the other hand, are accompanied by other important nutrients, such as fiber, vitamins, and minerals — all of which come with their own health benefits. You can find natural sugars in whole foods like fruit and certain milk products.

What's more, besides being empty calories that could potentially lead to weight gain, added sugars can negatively impact your health over time.

"Added sugars can be pro-inflammatory to our bodies," says Snyder. "They can also lead to blood sugar spikes, which can increase your risk for prediabetes and type 2 diabetes."

(Related: 5 Types of Foods That Cause Inflammation)

Because of these known health consequences, food manufacturers are now required to list the amount of added sugars on the nutrition-facts label. You can find "Added Sugar" within the "Total Carbohydrates" section.

"It's not that you need to eliminate added sugar from your diet entirely," says Snyder. "You just want to be sure you're looking at a food label, so you're aware of how much added sugar you're consuming and can determine when a food item may contain too much."

Snyder recommends choosing food items that contain 5 grams of added sugar per serving or less.

"If it's a dessert or sweet, I'd give you a little more leeway — about 10 grams of added sugar instead," she adds. "But generally speaking, the less the better."

These guidelines can help you stay in line with the American Heart Association's recommendation of limiting added sugar to 24 grams per day for women and 36 grams per day for men.

Red flag #2: Sodium

We know the obvious symptoms of consuming too much salt, but there are long-term consequences from a high-sodium diet to consider, too.

"The main issue with consuming too much salt is how it can lead to blood pressure issues over time," says Snyder. "Because of this, the recommendation for most people is to limit sodium intake to no more than 2,300 milligrams per day."

Believe it or not, it's incredibly easy to exceed this limit — even if you never touch a salt shaker. That's because more than 70% of our salt intake comes from sodium added during the food manufacturing process.

To combat too much salt consumption, Snyder recommends limiting sodium to 500 milligrams per meal or looking for foods that contain less than 150 mg per serving.

For foods notoriously high in salt, like canned soups, look for food-label claims like "reduced sodium" or, even better, "low sodium" or "very low sodium."

"'Reduced sodium' means that the product has to have 25% less sodium than the original version," explains Snyder. "You will still want to check the nutrition-facts label to make sure there isn't too much sodium. If that is the case, look for a product that's 'low sodium or very low sodium,' since these products have even lower levels of salt."

There are also sometimes "No Salt" versions of canned beans, soups and seasonings that are healthy options.

Red flag #3: Saturated fats

Fats are probably the one of the most controversial (and misunderstood) nutrients out there. One thing's for certain, though: Saturated fats should be limited, and trans fats should be avoided altogether.

"The good news here is that the FDA removed trans fats from the GRAS (generally recognized as safe) list a while back," says Snyder. "Added trans fats are all but absent from processed foods now."

Saturated fats, on the other hand, still abound. They're also naturally found in animal products, including red meat, chicken and more.

"Not all fats are bad, but what we know about saturated fat is that it contributes to rising total cholesterol levels, particularly LDL cholesterol, which can increase a person's risk of heart disease," Snyder explains.

LDL stands for low-density lipoprotein. It's sometimes referred to as "bad cholesterol" since it can collect in the walls of your blood vessels and, over time, lead to cardiovascular health issues. The higher your LDL cholesterol level, the more likely this becomes.

"Saturated fat intake can vary based on individual needs, but the recommendation for heart health is to limit saturated fat intake to 12 to 16 grams per day," says Snyder.

She adds that most people will want to try to avoid regularly eating foods containing more than 5 grams of saturated fat per serving.

But since fats are an essential part of our diet, Snyder recommends swapping any excess saturated fat you may be eating with heart-healthier monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats.

"On the whole, we still have to limit our overall fat intake," Snyder adds. "We just want the majority of it to be plant-based — since plants tend to be higher in monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats — versus animal-based, since animal products are mainly comprised of saturated fats."

(Related: 5 Reasons to Give Meatless Monday a Try)

Red flag #4: Unreasonable portion sizes

Even if your favorite packaged foods do meet Snyder's criteria above, she warns that you still need to take a look at the serving size. Food items you might assume contain only a single portion may actually contain more than that. Others can have unreasonably tiny serving sizes.

"They've made a lot of improvements to how the serving size is presented on many nutrition labels," says Snyder. "It's now larger, in bolder print."

Be sure to take advantage of these improvements and check out the serving size.

"You don't have to necessarily stick to eating seven chips, if that's the serving size and your individual goals allow you to eat beyond that," says Snyder. "Just know that if your portion is going to double, then the amount of grams of saturated fat and added sugars and milligrams of salt you've consumed has doubled too."

This may take a seemingly healthy choice into unhealthy territory.

Red flag #5: Long ingredient lists

"It's always a good idea to at least glance at the ingredient list," recommends Snyder. "A good rule of thumb: The less ingredients, the better."

She adds that this typically indicates that the food item is less processed.

"For instance, if a bag of chips has 25 ingredients in it, maybe that's not the right choice," Snyder adds. "Maybe the chip that's just corn, oil and salt is your best option in terms of chips."

This isn't an end-all-be-all rule, though. Just because a food item has a long list of ingredients doesn't mean it's unhealthy. Some food items contain a lot of herbs and spices, so a longer list isn't always a problem. It can, however, be a signal that closer inspection is warranted.

"If it's a bread-based item, the ingredient list can also help you determine if you're choosing something that's whole grain," says Snyder. "In that case, one of the first few ingredients should be whole grain, whole wheat or whole oats."

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