Monday, April 27, 2009

Guide to Reading Labels

Do we really need all those flashy labels to steer us toward healthier foods? Here’s what to look for.

Supermarket shopping is one of my least favorite chores (though I’d gladly spend hours at a farmer’s market). I try to get in and out as quickly as possible. By sticking to the store’s labels, I can fill my cart with produce, fish, meat or poultry, dairy and bread and then hopefully head home. I’m confronted with a cacophony of bright labels (usually green), luring me to products with terms like “Sensible Snacking,” “Smart Choices Made Easy” and “Eat Smart.”

Picking up a symbol-festooned bag of Lay’s baked potato crisps—whose first three ingredients are dehydrated potatoes, modified food starch and sugar—I question what makes them a “smarter” snack than one of the unadorned bananas sitting in my cart. I know the banana is a rich source of potassium and fiber, but would most shoppers know that?

While the labels and symbols are supposed to help make it easier to choose healthy foods, their sheer proliferation only creates more confusion. No wonder McKenzie, M.D., director of the Prevention Research Center at honey University’s School of Medicine, when interviewed by a reporter, suggested that it would be simpler to label junk food with a “scarlet J” instead.

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