How to Read and Interpret Nutrition Labels
The Impossible Task of Picking Healthy Food
Food companies work hard to confuse you when it comes to nutrition. I have seen labels on just cereal that promise to boost your immunity, prevent cancer, reduce cholesterol levels, and promote sex drive. I have seen labels on Sour Patch kids as fat free (which is technically true, but they are filled with sugar), labels on margarine for reducing cholesterol levels, labels on soup for being lower in sodium, and one of my favorites is oreo cookies made with organic flour and sugar, printed in green and yellow letters (for the record, organic does not necessarily equal healthy).
With all the misleading advertisements food companies put on TV and in the grocery store, it is no wonder that the majority of Americans think picking healthy food is more difficult than doing their taxes (saw this in a magazine poll last year). However, we are lucky that there are certain labels every food item needs to have-the nutrition facts panel, and a list of ingredients. Understanding what these labels say can be the difference between sitting down to something that will kill you faster or keep you alive longer.
Sample Nutrition Facts Label
The Nutrition Facts Panel
The Nutrition Facts Panel is step 1 when it comes to getting to know your potential breakfast/lunch/dinner/snack. The Nutrition Facts panel tells you the following
- What the serving size of the food is (Such as 1 cup of chocolate milk)
- How many servings are in the container (16 servings of chocolate milk in a gallon)
- Calories from fat
- Total Fat, Saturated Fat, Trans Fat (and sometimes monounsaturated and polyunsaturated)
- Total Carbohydrates and Sugar
- Vitamin A
- Vitamin C
- Dietary Fiber, Potassium, and other vitamins/minerals if there is any present in them (otherwise they may be left out)
- The Percent Daily Value (%DV) for all listed nutrients
Nutrient amounts are listen on a per serving basis. This is key. If you have a package of food with 2.5 servings in it and the label says 300 calories and 20 grams of sugar, you better be prepared for 700 Calories and 50 grams of sugar if you feel like eating the whole thing right there.
Important note: If there is less than .5g of fat in a serving, the fat can be listed as having no fat. This applies for trans fat too, which is especially important. If you see 0g trans fat on the label, you should check the ingredients label too to make sure there really is no trans fat (more info on that below!)
Using the Nutrition Facts
So how do you take the information on the nutrition facts label and use them to make a good decision about buying healthy food?
- Do not rely on labels on the front of the package or anywhere besides the nutrition facts label for nutrition advice.
- Check the total number of servings in the package to get a realistic idea of what you are really eating
- Make sure you are not eating too many Calories (unless you want to gain weight)
- Avoid trans fat completely
- Limit Sugar (especially added sugar. Dairy products contain natural sugars). 20 grams of sugar or more is a significant amount and should be enough to make you think twice. Less than 10 is ideal
- Limit salt (especially in processed foods). 500mg of salt in a package is WAY too much. 300mg is pushing it for a snack, but is fine for a meal.
- Look for foods that are nutrient dense, meaning they have great nutritional value for the calories that come with them. If you see lots of vitamins and minerals, potassium, and fiber without loads of Calories, that food may be a good choice.
Remember, you are looking at a whole food product, not just a compilation of nutrients. In addition, think about the scope of your diet. If you have one food with 30 grams of sugar, but everything else you eat combines to 8 grams of sugar, that is fine. If you have a bag of potato chips it won't kill you, just keep your diet generally focused on natural foods that are nutrient dense, and eat your veggies every day.
Percent Daily Value shows how much of a particular nutrient is in one serving of the food based on the nutrient needs of a person who has a 2,000 Calorie diet. If a food has 5% or less of a nutrient per serving, it is a poor source of that nutrient, if it has 20% or more, than it is a good source of that nutrient. Remember though, this is based on a 2,000 Calorie diet, which may not be what you need. If you have higher Calorie needs, you need proportionally higher nutrient needs, and vice versa.
Sample Ingredient Lists
The Ingredients List
If you take away one thing from reading this post, this whole blog, or anything you do today, let it be this: Read the ingredients label on everything you eat or are considering eating. With enough training and knowledge, the ingredient list should, most of the time, give you enough information to decide whether or not a food is healthy. It is more important than the nutrition facts. Even though it does not tell you how many Calories or how much sugar is in a product it tells you what the food is actually made of. If you see-sugar, hydrogenated soy oil, high fructose corn syrup, natural flavor, less than 2% of salt-you know then and there it is no good. A general rule of thumb: if the ingredient list is made of all healthy foods, than the food that these ingredients make up is probably healthy. This works the other way too, if the ingredients are crap, the food is crap, and put that crap where it belongs (in the trash if it is in your house, back on the shelf if it is in the store).
Important point: Ingredients are listed in decreasing order by volume; the ingredient present in the largest amount is listed first, with each ingredient following being present in smaller and smaller amounts. The first ingredient being sugar is really bad, the 5th ingredient being sugar may be OK (a situation like this is where it is good to cross check with the nutrition facts).
Here a few pointers for making good decisions based on ingredient labels
- Look for a small list of ingredients: more ingredients generally means more processing, which almost always means less nutrition and more chemicals
- Avoid high fructose corn syrup: HFCS is a source of added sugar, and while it probably is not worse than regular sugar, it is generally added to products that are highly processed and unhealthy. It is a giveaway of a cheep, edible substance that probably does not qualify as real, wholesome, food
- If you can't read it, don't eat it: Would you like some aspartame with your yogurt? How about some butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT) with your kid's cereal? Could you pass the tertiary butlydroquinone (TBHQ)? Humans are meant to eat food, not chemicals. If you see a bunch of words that sound better suited for a laboratory than a human body, than you are probably right. Leave the sodium nitrite, monosodium glutamate, sucralose, tartrazine, artificial flavors and colors, hydrolyzed protein, and hydrogenated oils for chemistry class, and pick some, ya know, actual food, for dinner.
- Watch out for sugar in disguise: Many forms of sugar exist and many food additives that are very high in sugar are added to products. Other versions of sugar besides just "sugar" are: high fructose corn syrup, corn syrup, brown rice syrup (any type of syrup pretty much), evaporated cane juice, fructose, glucose, sucrose, dextrose (pretty much anything ending in -ose), maltodextrin (not technically a sugar, but it acts like sugar and is chemically similar), caramel, honey, fruit juice concentrate (contains small amounts of micronutrients, but it is almost all concentrated sugar), mannitol, sorbitol (sugar alcohols, these are pretty much anything ending in -tol).
- Make sure your grain products are 100% Whole Grains. Multigrain is not whole grain. f you see "100% Whole Wheat ____" (flour, barley ect.), or "Whole Wheat ____" (flour, rye, ect.) that is the whole wheat and you are good to go. If you see anything besides that, such as "enriched wheat flour", "reduced enriched wheat flour", "wheat flour", "unbleched flour" you are getting a nutrient poor refined carbohydrate, which is not good. Even if the package says something like "made with whole wheat" one the front, there may be only a minute amount of whole wheat actually in it. If the first ingredient is "wheat flour" and the 10th ingredient is "whole wheat flour" it is technically made with whole wheat, but not very much.
- Stay away from hydrogenated oil, it is trans fat.
Be Wary of Flashy Packaging
Labels like "organic", "all natural", "cage free", "fresh", "gluten free", "hormone free", or any other marketing claim the food companies can conjure up do not guarantee health, they are simply there to persuade you to buy their products. Food companies do not have your best interests at heart, they have their financial interests at heart. Do not be fooled by food packages, stick to what you learned about reading labels to make informed decisions and keep yourself healthy.