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Understanding Unfamiliar Nutritional Terms

Nutritional label on cereal box
Andrew McCaul
Some of those multi-syllabic, scary-sounding ingredients are harmful; others may be healthy. Here are some common stumpers to look out for.

Saturated Fats
These are listed in the fats section and are found primarily in animal products, including whole milk, butter, cheese, red meat, and ice cream, as well as in coconut oil, coconut milk, and palm oil. They're troublesome because they can increase LDL, the bad kind of cholesterol.

Trans Fats
These new enemies on the block abound in most margarines and many fast foods and commercially baked products. They may be even more unhealthy than saturated fats because they may boost LDL cholesterol and triglycerides (another form of blood fat), and they may make blood platelets stickier than usual, encouraging the formation of clots. A high intake of trans fats has been associated with an increased risk of heart disease. You can also find them listed in the ingredients section under assumed names, such as "partially hydrogenated vegetable oil" and "vegetable shortening."

High-Fructose Corn Syrup
This processed sweetener is found in juices, cookies, even pasta sauce. It has been implicated in America's obesity problem and in the worldwide diabetes epidemic because, like other sugars, it raises blood sugar dramatically and is high in calories that don't make you feel full. It's best to limit consumption of products with any added sugar.

Chemicals
Some foreign-sounding chemicals with names like "potassium metabisulfite" and "calcium chloride" can send a chill down a healthy eater's spine. Many of these substances are preservatives, but some of them have health benefits. These agents usually occupy the fifth or sixth position on an ingredients list, so they're not present in large amounts. But if you're sensitive to sulfites, a type of preservative, even small amounts may cause an allergic reaction. Calcium chloride, often used to maintain the shape of canned tomatoes, is actually an added source of dietary calcium.

Propellants
Used in vegetable cooking sprays, carbonated beverages, and sprayable whipped cream, these are a far cry from the rocket propellants used by NASA. Nutritionists consider them safe. Cooking sprays, in fact, are a good way to reduce fat intake. Products like Pam contain little or no fat and single-digit calories. In contrast, a tablespoon of oil, margarine, or butter contains 11 to 14 grams of fat and 100 or more calories.

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