Food Labels: What’s in the Box?

With our daughter now an active participant at the supermarket, I’ve become more attuned to how companies entice kids to pick up their products (“look, Mommy . . . it’s ELMO!”). But it’s not just kids who are taken in by food labels. I walked up and down the supermarket aisles last week with a keen eye towards the promises beckoning me and I found that, for the most part, the bolder the proclaimed virtues, the less likely the product was to be good for me.

food labels

Take Reduced Fat Ritz Crackers, for instance. The green stripe at the bottom of the box draws my eye toward a sunny icon proclaiming these Reduced Fat Ritz to be a “sensible solution.” They have half the fat of original Ritz, no cholesterol and little saturated fat–more than enough to convince a busy shopper to lob that box into their cart and feel good about it. But let’s take a closer look at those claims—and the ingredients and Nutrition Facts—shall we?

nutrition facts label

No Cholesterol and Low in Saturated Fat– These claims typically appeal to those looking out for their cardiovascular health (and bravo to you for doing so!). Where it gets misleading is that dietary cholesterol has turned out to have much less effect on our bodies than previously thought; it’s the types of fat we consume, and their respective impact on LDL and HDL cholesterol, that matter. Saturated fat raises harmful LDL cholesterol, but it also raises helpful HDL, so the net effect isn’t too terribly awful. Trans-fats—identified either by grams in the Nutrition Facts panel or by the term “partially hydrogenated” in the ingredients list—are by far the worst type of fat because they raise LDL and lower HDL. So let’s flip the box over and see what’s there. The nutritional panel lists trans-fats at 0 grams, but a product can contain up to .5 grams of trans fats and still list the amount at 0, so I like to double-check the ingredients lists for partially hydrogenated oils. And there, right in the middle of the list, is partially hydrogenated cottonseed oil. Uh oh. So much for heart-healthy.

Half the Fat – True, at 2 grams per serving these Ritzes are half the fat of normal Ritzes, which weigh in at 4 grams. But what does that really tell us? If we’re concerned about the fat itself, we already know that these are made with a less-than-ideal type. And if we’re equating fat grams with whether or not they’ll make us fat, we’re looking in the wrong place. Calories (or more specifically, an excess of calories) cause weight gain, not total fat grams, and these Reduced Fat Ritz have 70 calories per serving—not bad, until you consider that a serving is only 5 crackers. Up that to a more realistic 10 and you’re looking at 140 calories, roughly 7% of an average “calorie budget” of 2,000 a day.

So here you have a snack with virtually no value for your body that gobbles up close to a tenth of your calorie budget for the day and includes a downright dangerous type of fat.

This is a sensible solution? For whom . . . us or Nabisco?

So what to do? First off, stop and ask yourself what you want to achieve. Are you trying to manage your weight? Are you trying to protect your heart? Are you trying to find healthy foods to feed your kids? Whatever it is you want to accomplish, take a moment to learn which factors really make an impact. Once you’re in the supermarket perusing the aisles, ask yourself why you’re drawn to a box. If you already know what you want from a food, you can evaluate how well a package’s claims stack up to your needs by examining the ingredients, Nutrition Facts panel and serving size. Best yet, if there’s an option to go whole—like this Make-at-Home Socca—choose that over any package.

In any case, when you’re cruising the aisles, it’s best not to judge a box by its cover.

Labor Savers: Prepped Ingredients are the Gimpy Cook’s Friend

Like it or not, when you get some formal culinary training you turn into a bit of a snob. As soon as I polished my knife skills at the Cordon Bleu, I abandoned many prepped ingredients and other convenience items that are the mainstay of time-pressed cooks: prechopped onions, presliced mushrooms, grated carrots, grated cheese, shredded cabbage and such. Whole ingredients are cheaper, higher in quality and have a longer shelf life.

Then I slipped getting out of the shower, sprained my wrist and promptly changed my tune. I learned to do many things with my nondominant left hand, like shift gears in my manual car and flip a quesadilla.

But it’s hard to do much slicing and dicing with your sore wrist in a splint, so I had to revisit these prepped ingredients if I wanted to stay in the kitchen. You don’t need an injury to appreciate these items, though. They come in handy for anyone who’s really pressed for time or simply doesn’t enjoy the prep work of chopping and slicing. That said, here are few things to keep in mind before tossing these into your cart.

Expect to pay more. I know, duh, but buying prepped ingredients is the home chef’s version of hiring a prep cook–you pay for someone else to do the grunt work so you can get cooking. Sometimes the difference is significant. A medium whole yellow onion costs about 12 cents an ounce vs. 40 cents an ounce for diced onions, and you’ll pay more than three times as much per ounce for shredded carrots as for whole. But that’s not always the case–I found that ounce for ounce shredded cheese cost about the same as brick cheese. Sold!

And don’t forget the eco-cost. Sure, with whole ingredients there are unused trimmings, but those can go into the compost. With prepped ingredients, there’s always packaging that may or may not be recyclable.

Choose wisely. For the most part, I was satisfied with the quality of the chopped onions, sliced mushrooms, grated carrots and the like. Hardy veggies like onions, carrots or butternut squash tend to hold up better than more delicate items like apples or watermelon. One major exception: jarred minced garlic. It’s convenient, but it doesn’t retain the bright flavor and color of fresh garlic. For that, I dug my garlic press out of the back of the drawer.

Check for freshness. If convenience products don’t look perfectly fresh, don’t waste your money. Also check the “best by” or packing date. The package of sliced mushrooms I bought was stamped with the packing date and time, so I knew they were really fresh. Also buy from stores with high turnover, so you know items haven’t sat on the shelf too long. Some markets prep their own fruits and veggies on site, which is even better.

Be flexible. You may not find exactly the type of shredded cheese or cut of onion you want, so be prepared to make substitutions.

Use prepped ingredients promptly. Once ingredients are peeled, cut and prepped, they start to deteriorate quickly and don’t have the shelf life of whole ingredients. Plan to use them within a couple of days after buying them.

By now, my wrist is on the mend and I’m ready to pick up my knife again. Prepped foods still aren’t my first choice to use all the time, but now I can appreciate how handy they can be. And you never know, I might need them again.

Hey, I’m a klutz.