Do you read the Nutrition Facts labels on your food? As we talked about in Are You Eating Real Food, knowing what’s in your food is the first step to making sure you’re eating actual food. Reading labels helps you know what’s in the package and lets you make judgements about how well that particular food fits into your healthy eating plan. If you’re not used to reading nutrition labels they can be confusing, so I thought I’d share a few basics. You may be surprised what you can find out through a quick scan….
Serving Size & Number of Calories
The first thing we come to on the label is serving size. What’s important to know about this is that it’s a standardized serving size and may not reflect how much of the item you actually eat. The numbers you’ll be looking at lower down the label are based on the amount listed as the serving size. If you eat more – or less – you’ll need to adjust accordingly.
Importantly, the number of servings in the package is listed in this area as well. Sometimes we pick up a package (of chips, for instance) and think it’s just one serving. We see they only have, let’s say, 150 calories and think to ourselves, “that’s not so bad.” But then, after we’ve eaten them, we realize that bag had 3 servings in it. Yikes!
Right below this, you’ll see the number of calories a serving of the item contains. When you’re looking at calories, something that may be helpful to remember is that 100 calories per serving is considered moderate, and 400 or more per serving is considered high.
Here you’ll see the breakdown of the nutrients a serving of the food contains. On the left-hand side, the nutrients are listed, along with the actual grams or milligrams of the nutrient a serving contains.
You’ll also see, on the right-hand side, a %Daily Value. What this tells you is what percentage of the recommended daily value of the nutrient a serving of the food contains. For reference, 5% is considered low, and 20% is considered high.
This percentage is based on a 2,000 calorie-per-day eating pattern, so if you eat more or less, you might have to do a little math to get an accurate percentage. If you don’t want to do the the math, though, this can still give you a basic idea.
Now let’s take a look at some of the individual nutrients listed on the label:
This is where we find out not only how much fat is in our food, but the kinds of fat. Why is this important? Because we generally want our foods to contain more of the healthy fats and less of the not-so-healthy stuff. We also want to keep an eye on our overall fat intake so we can make sure we’re not eating more than we need.
Let’s talk a little about the saturated fat and trans fat listed.
First up is saturated fat. It’s listed separately from the total fat because it can raise your cholesterol levels and along with it, your risk of heart disease. That doesn’t mean you can’t ever have saturated fat – it just means you might want to include it in “eat less” area of your Eat More, Eat Some, Eat Less continuum that we talked about in Good Foods, Bad Foods.
Trans Fats also affect our heart health, but they’re even worse for it than the saturated fats. According to the Food and Drug Administration (2), “there is evidence that diets higher in trans fat are associated with increased blood levels of low-density lipoprotein (LDL or “bad”) cholesterol—which, in turn, are associated with an increased risk of developing cardiovascular disease.”
One thing to be aware of with trans fats is that manufacturers are allowed to claim zero trans fat if it’s under .5 grams. That means a food could still contain up to .5 grams of trans fat per serving. The easiest way to tell if this is the case is to look for “partially hydrogenated oil” in the ingredients list. “Note: most uses of artificial trans fat in the U.S. food supply have been phased out as of 2018.” (FDA)
This is the sodium contained in the item, and you might be surprised how much of it many packaged foods contain! It’s important to take notice of our sodium intake because it can contribute to high blood pressure. Some sodium is necessary for our bodies to function normally, but keeping intake low is usually recommended. The American Heart Association (1) recommends “no more than 2,300 milligrams (mg) a day and an ideal limit of no more than 1,500 mg per day for most adults, especially for those with high blood pressure.” Now to put this in perspective, 1 teaspoon of table salt=2300 mg of sodium. It’s really easy to get more sodium than we need, especially when eating processed foods.
If you take a look at these black beans, you’ll notice they contain 450 mg of sodium in one serving. You can reduce that amount by almost half simply by rinsing them under running water.
The label will tell you not only how much total carbohydrate the food contains, but how much fiber and sugar it contains as well. This area can help us sort out whether the food is a source of the healthier carbohydrates we want to eat more of, or the less-healthy kind we want to put on our “Eat Less” list.
The total grams of carbohydrate is listed first. This doesn’t differentiate between the types of carbs; it just tells you the total amount in the food. The next two lines are where we can tell more about the quality of the carbohydrates you’re about to eat.
You may wonder why fiber is listed under carbohydrate… The foods that contain carbohydrates are also the ones that contain fiber. Of course, we know about the foods that don’t need a nutrition label, fresh fruits and veggies, etc., but whole-grain foods like oatmeal and whole-grain bread, and beans and peas are good sources of dietary fiber. Eating enough fiber is vital for heart health and gut health. It can also help lower blood glucose levels.
Sugar is also a break-out nutrient listed under carbohydrate. One important thing to note is that manufacturers are now required to list added sugars separately. Why? Because many healthy foods have some naturally-occurring sugars. Think milk, fruit, whole grains, etc.. The sugars we need to be concerned with are the added sugars. Many processed foods contain large amounts of added sugar, and though it adds more calories, it doesn’t add any nutrition. This can make it hard to get all the nutrients your body needs and still stay within a healthy calorie range.
The Ingredients List
The ingredients list is just that — a list of all the ingredients in the product. The ingredients are listed by weight, most to least. That makes it easy to see through all those health claims on the front of the package. Take a look at the first few ingredients and you’ll be able to see if it contains the things you do want, or conversely, more of those you don’t.
This can be particularly helpful if you’re buying something like ‘whole grain’ bread or cereal, etc.. If it says ‘whole grain’ on the front, but the first ingredient is white (enriched) flour, you know it contains more white flour than whole grains.
Just Start Small
If you’re not used to reading labels, it’s like anything else — just start small. You don’t have to start looking at everything all at once. Just choose one or two things you want to keep an eye on and check those. You can always start adding other things later.
Reading nutrition labels can give you a lot of important information about what you’re buying, and taking a few minutes to at least skim over them can help you choose the foods that best support your healthy lifestyle. And as we talked about earlier, you can see if you’re eating real food or a bunch of chemicals that were cooked up in a lab.
I haven’t listed everything you’ll find on the nutrition label — just highlighted some of the things you might be most likely to want to keep an eye on — but if you want to learn more, please visit the FDA’s website, https://www.fda.gov/food/new-nutrition-facts-label/how-understand-and-use-nutrition-facts-label.
Are you in the habit of reading food labels? What do you look for when you’re deciding what to buy?
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(3) Nutrition,4th ed, 2013, Paul Insel, et. al, Jones & Bartlett Learning, Burlington, MA.
(4) ACE Lifestyle & Weight Management Consultant Manual, 2nd ed, 2007, Cedric X. Bryant, PhD, and Daniel J Green, American Council on Exercise, San Diego, CA