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Read the fine print on healthy foods

May 09, 2002

In their efforts to make healthier food choices, consumers may be selecting food products that are not any healthier than traditional snack foods. It is important for consumers to read food labels carefully to determine actual ingredients, fat and sugar content and total calories per serving.

A food product may be labeled "sugar-free," "fat-free," or "reduced-fat" but still have the same amount of calories as their regular counterparts.

Sugar-free cookies, candies and pastries usually have just as many calories as the regular foods, just no sucrose or table sugar. All-fruit jam is no more nutritious than regular jam. It may contain fruit juice concentrate, but it still contains a form of sugar.

Trail mix and granola bars are more like candy and candy bars because their excessive calorie count comes from a high fat content. Frozen yogurts often have lots of added sugar and may contain the same amount of fat as ice cream. Select a frozen yogurt that is sugar-free and fat-free.

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The name of a product can be deceiving as well, so it is important to read the label to determine the true content of a product. A bran muffin sounds like a nutritious choice but may not contain any whole-wheat flour, and have lots of eggs, fat, sugar and other sweeteners. A large bran muffin may have as much fat and calories as bacon and eggs or a large cheese Danish pastry.

Wheat bread and wheat crackers are products that offer little in terms of added nutrients. Unless the product is labeled "whole wheat," it is probably made from refined white flour and the consumer is getting little fiber and fewer nutrients than a whole-wheat product offers.

Fruit drinks and frozen fruit desserts are usually not much better than soft drinks or sweetened water. Fruit drinks, beverages, punch, aids and fruit pops contain little fruit juice. Better choices include fresh, frozen or canned fruit, 100 percent fruit juice or agua frescas.

With a little effort, consumers can make healthier choices. It is important to read the fine print on food labels to determine what the actual ingredients are and what the actual fat and sugar content is. The actual portion size is important to note as well. It is easy to consume too many calories when you double the portion size by mistake.

>> Paula Fitch is the nutrition, family and consumer science adviser at the University of California-Imperial County Cooperative Extension.

>> The Cooperative Extension serves all residents of the Imperial Valley.

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