Taking the time to investigate food labels not only can improve your heart health, but also your overall wellness.
"Reading the labels is a great way to be guided toward healthier choices for your heart, and for general reduction of all chronic diseases today," Cathy Fitzgerald, registered dietitian with MFit, the University of Michigan Health System's health promotion division, said in a prepared statement. "So think about using the front of the package as well as the nutrition facts on the back when you are out shopping."
Start by educating yourself on what food label language truly means. Fitzgerald offered these tips:
- The claim, "May reduce the risk of heart disease." A company can only put this statement on a food if scientific evidence exists that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has decided is strong enough to support it.
- Nutrient content claims. The government regulates how a company can use terms such as "high," "low" or "reduced." For example, a food must have 3 grams of fat or less to be considered low fat, and a product that is high in a certain nutrient provides 20 percent or more of the daily value suggested by the FDA.
- Foods with fiber. Fiber helps the digestive system and lowers cholesterol. Look for the claims "high in fiber" or "excellent source of fiber," as these products have at least 5 grams of fiber per serving. A food listed as a "good source" of fiber has 2.5 grams of fiber or more.
- Omega-3 fats. Omega-3 fats have been shown to benefit the heart. Fish such as salmon, tuna, mackerel and trout are good sources of omega fats and are low in saturated fat.
- Sterols and stanols. Plant sterols and stanols are cholesterol-lowering substances often added to products like margarine and salad dressings. Review the label carefully to make sure a product states it offers the cholesterol-lowering benefits of plant sterols and stanols.
- Sodium. Look for phrases like "low sodium" or "reduced sodium." This is especially important in processed and canned foods. If a food is labeled as "reduced" in sodium, it has 25 percent less salt than the regular product.
- Trans fats. Eat trans fats sparingly, as they raise your bad cholesterol and lower your good cholesterol. Fried foods and processed foods that have a long shelf life are often loaded with them. The term "partially hydrogenated oil" on an ingredient's list indicates the food contains trans fats.
- Saturated fat. Butter, fatty cuts of red meat, and cheese made from whole milk are among foods with the highest amount of saturated fat -- a main dietary cause of high blood cholesterol. Opt for low-fat or non-fat dairy products, lean meats such as loin or round cuts, and liquid margarines instead of butter.