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The Informed Parent

Know Your Foods

by Shanna R. Cox, M.D., F.A.A.P.
Published on Jan. 23, 2006

The Food and Drug Administration is making a New Year's Resolution to more helpfully describe and label the foods we eat. Beginning January 1, 2006, multiple changes to standard food labels will begin to be implemented. If you have not been a label reader in the past, now is the time to take advantage of some of these specific facts that could dramatically improve your health.

Consider beginning your journey by visiting MyPyramid, the updated version of the food pyramid. MyPyramid, found at is a Department of Agriculture sponsored program that allows you to customize what your daily nutrient and caloric needs are based on your age, sex, and level of physical activity. It also gives specific tips on how to meet these goals. If you are not sure how to assess your food intake or physical activities, check out the "tracker" section of the website. It is easy to involve your family by using some of the great tools for kids that are accessible and printable from MyPyramid.

Now that you are armed with the knowledge of what you need, you are ready to take a closer look at the foods you are eating. First, take a second to familiarize yourself with the various components of a food label. Usually the major categories of interest convey calories, fat, sugar, protein and some basic vitamin information. Many of those who are most accustomed to reading labels are families with food allergies. Now, eight major allergen groups will be listed with their respective contents within each specific product. While certainly there are more than eight types of foods a person may be allergic to, this group accounts for approximately 90% of documented food allergies within the United States. They include milk, peanuts, tree nuts, eggs, wheat, soy, shellfish and fish.

Perhaps the most utilitarian changes to the food label will be related to its description of fat content and caloric content. It can be confusing to figure out if you are getting any good fats in your diet. Now labels will clearly account for saturated and Trans fats as well as monounsaturated fats so that you can better improve your cardiac health. Remember, saturated and Trans fats raise LDL (bad) cholesterol--avoid them! Also, take note of the new caloric designations. Many times you may have glanced at a product's label to see the listed calories and fat only later to discover those values applied to only a very small portion of the container. Labels now will have both "serving size" and entire "package" information. Additionally, serving sizes will be more reasonably identifies in cups and pieces. Compare these values with those you identify in your personalized pyramid to effectively reach your health goals.

While these improvements could greatly improve your health, be careful when looking to similar claims made on product labels. Some products may amplify their benefits highlighting data out of proportion to what scientific evidence truly supports. When you see these claims, look further into the details before using a particular product to help meet your health needs.

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