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Learn How to Make Wise Choices at the Supermarket

July 17, 2012

Is that expensive cereal really better for you? Does your favorite wheat bread contain whole grains? Food labels can be confusing, often making it more difficult to make wise choices at the supermarket.

"Food labels provide a lot of information about the ingredients and nutrients in packaged foods," said Anna Mazzei, a registered dietitian at Washington Hospital. "They are easy to understand if you know how to read them."

Mazzei and Maggie Villagomez, also a registered dietitian at Washington Hospital, will present "Supermarket Savvy" on Wednesday, July 25. The class will meet at the Washington Women's Center and then take a walking tour to a nearby supermarket. The Women's Center conference room is located at 2500 Mowry Avenue (Washington West), Suite 145 in Fremont. To reserve a space, register online at www.whhs.com or call (510) 608-1356.

Mazzei and Villagomez will explain how to make sense of food labels. Just about every packaged food sold in the U.S. has one. They will discuss healthy foods and the importance of looking at total calories, sodium content and saturated fat. You will also learn tips for getting the most out of your food dollars.

The Nutrition Facts panel on the back of food products lists the serving size
and the number of servings contained in the food item along with the amount of calories, fat, cholesterol, fiber, sodium, sugar, protein and other nutrients in one serving. The serving size is important because it's the only way to know how much calories, fat and nutrients you are consuming, Mazzei explained.

For example, if one serving is one cup and you eat two cups, you have to multiply everything on the label by two. You are getting twice the number of calories, fat grams and nutrients listed. If there are three servings in a package and you eat the entire package, you have to multiply the calories, fat grams and nutrients by three because that's how many servings are in the whole package.

Take Control

"By understanding the label, you can control what you eat," Mazzei said. "If you are trying to reduce your salt intake, look at the amount of sodium listed on the label. Packaged and processed foods in general are higher in sodium."

She will explain what to look for in the list of ingredients, which lists the largest ingredient first followed by the other ingredients in descending order. Mazzei will talk about health claims on labels and what they mean, including organic, low fat, heart healthy and low sodium.

"For example, if you are trying to eat more whole grains, look to see if whole wheat flour or whole grains are listed," she said. "Multi-grain doesn't necessarily mean the whole grain was used."

Mazzei and Villagomez will also provide tips for stretching your food dollar. "Planning really helps you save money. Decide what meals you will prepare over the next week or two and make a list before you go to the store," Villagomez said. "Plan your menu around items that are on sale."

The class will encourage participants to take advantage of local farmers markets, where prices are often good and produce is fresh. You get the best price on fruits and vegetables that are in season, and they are at their peak for flavor and nutrients, Mazzei explained.

"It's a good rule of thumb to limit packaged and processed foods," she said. "But a lot of families rely on them, so it's important to know how to make better choices."

For more information about other programs and services offered at the Washington Women's Center, visit www.whhs.com.