Read between lines on nutrition labels


Have you discovered the gold mine at the bottom of the Nutrition Facts label?

During the past year, nutrition-conscious shoppers quickly zeroed in on the fat and calorie label "hot spots."

But there's more good news about the label.

Additional label information can help you track down the best nutritional bargains. By checking the vitamin and mineral section, you'll get more healthy body building blocks for your food dollar and for your calories.

Only two vitamins (A and C) and two minerals (calcium and iron), are required on the food label. These nutrients, frequently in short supply, are vital to our health. Since we're limited in the calories we can eat without gaining weight, learning to choose "nutrient dense" foods -- packed with these vitamins and minerals -- is essential.

When you use this bonus information, you'll improve your nutrition and expand the variety of foods you get to eat.

Compare Lean Pockets "Sausage and Pepperoni Deluxe," (270 calories, 8 grams fat) to its own "Chicken Fajita" (260 calories, 8 grams fat). If you just stick to the hot spots, you'd probably decide the fajita is a better deal because it has fewer calories.

But that's not the whole story. Check the vitamin and mineral section of the label. You'll find that, for just 10 more calories, you'll get twice as much vitamin A and four times as much iron from the deluxe. What a nice surprise, especially if you thought sausage and pepperoni were banned from the world of healthful eating.

Here's another surprise. Compare Weight Watcher's Chocolate Chocolate Chip muffins (200 calories, 4 grams fat) to its own blueberry muffins (190 calories, 5 grams fat). It might appear a toss-up, looking just at fat vs. calories. But the chocolate one contains more vitamin C, more calcium and more iron. Adding a glass of skim milk and a piece of fresh fruit to either would create a balanced breakfast, but you do get an edge with the chocolate one.

When you're shopping for granola bars, again explore the lower label as well as the hot spots. Compare Nature Valley Lowfat Chewy bars (110 calories, 2 grams fat) to Kudos Reduced Fat Nutty Fudge bars (130 calories, 5 grams fat). Nature Valley provides 2 percent of your iron for the day, but no vitamin A, no vitamin C and no calcium.

For an extra 20 calories and 3 grams of fat, Kudos gives you 10 percent of your A, 10 percent of your C, 20 percent of your calcium, and 8 percent of your iron.

But not everything turns out opposite of what you expect.

If you like burritos, look at Patio Bean and Cheese (270 calories, 5 grams fat) and Patio Beef and Bean (280 calories, 7 grams fat). Bean and cheese looks like the best deal to start with, and that turns out to be true. It has more vitamin C, more calcium and more iron. It's amazing what a little detective work will do.

The facts are at your fingertips. Use them to your nutritional advantage.

Get the most for your money, and for your calories.

Colleen Pierre, a registered dietitian, is the nutrition consultant at the Union Memorial Sports Medicine Center and Vanderhorst & Associates in Baltimore.

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