One of the most confusing areas of nutrition can be reading packaged food nutrition labels. The following will be a two part series to teach you how to read and understand food nutrition labels and food claims. When you are trying to determine if a product fits into your goals it can become very complicated and confusing. My goal in this two part series is to make life easier on you when trying to determine if a food fits in your daily nutrition goals. Are you ready to be an expert in reading food nutrition labels and understanding food claims?
In 2016 the nutrition fact label changed in an attempt to be easier to read! There is now bolded bigger text to emphasize the importance of certain areas. Also, if a product has multiple serving sizes they now calculate the total amount of calories and nutrients in the whole container for you! Yes gone are the days you have to do math in your head! So, let’s dive deeper in breaking apart the food label that is pictured below.
Serving Size/ Serving Per Container: I have to say this is one of the first things you should always look at on a food label. This tells you how many servings are in the container and how much you can eat per serving. I like to say this is the area that tells you the most about the product. Understanding the portion control when trying to lose weight can help in accomplishing your goals!
Calories: You want to look at this next when determining if you will purchase a product. This tells you if the product will fit into your daily plan. If a product is high in calories you might think twice before purchasing.
% Daily Values: These are based on a 2000 calorie diet. They are to be a guide for planning your complete day. Honestly, I ignore these most of the time because the average person does not eat 2000 calories in a given day, but they can be useful for vitamin and mineral consumption.
Total Fat: Just because the total fat is high in a product does not mean this product cannot fit into your diet! If both the saturated and trans fat are low in grams, the product might be higher in monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. These types of fats are not required to be on a food label. Monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats are good forms of fat! We need to limit our saturated fats and trans fats. I always describe trans fat as fat that is made in a chemical lab! Why would you want to eat something chemically processed? An easy way to determine if a product has trans fats if you see hydrogenated oils in the ingredient list. One product with a lot of trans fat that comes to mind is Whopper candy. You should aim for less than 2 grams per day of trans fat Saturated fats are solid at room temperature, which is why we limit them. They are another bad fat that can cause an increased risk for heart disease. Daily consumption for saturated fats should not exceed 22 grams on a 2000 calorie diet.
Cholesterol: Cholesterol is found only in animal products. This is why the box of cheerios can claim to be “cholesterol free.” There are no animal products in cheerios. Also, the body naturally makes cholesterol. If you are someone who suffers from high cholesterol I encourage you to read this section of the food label. If you do not have a risk for heart disease the daily recommendation for cholesterol is less than 300 milligrams per day.
Sodium: This is my FAVORITE section of a food label. Did you know the average American gets 3x the recommenced amount of sodium in their daily diet? I always recommend if a product has more than 300mg of sodium per serving to place it back on the shelf! There is no need to buy it! I can guarantee you will get the sodium somewhere else in your day. Fun fact, Panera Bread does not have a sandwich on their menu with less than 1200mg of sodium in it, this even includes the veggie sandwich! Our bodies do need sodium to stay hydrated and perform other daily functions, however I can guarantee you are getting enough throughout your day. The daily recommendations for sodium is less than 2300 milligrams per day.
Total Carbohydrates: All carbohydrates are not bad. A serving size for carbohydrates is 15g. This is important for people with diabetes who have to limit their carbohydrates to control their blood glucose levels. However, we give carbohydrates a bad reputation when really carbohydrates and protein provide the body with equal calories per gram. If you are trying to watch your carbohydrates choosing products high in dietary fiber is recommended. Dietary fiber has many functions in the body such as managing blood glucose levels, lower cholesterol, manage bowel health, help with achieving a healthy weight, help with satiety, and much more. Strive to get at least 25-30g from your food each day. What I do like about the new food label is that we now can see added sugars. This is where carbohydrates can get a bad name, especially in packaged food products. We want to limit added sugars. These are sugars that are added during the processing stage of making a product. When looking at the ingredients list these are usually in the form of “ose,” but can be hidden elsewhere. I have attached here a hyperlink to 56 different hidden names of sugar. I recommend using this when trying to read the ingredient lists on food labels. I do recommend attempting to limit added sugar to no more than 10% of your daily calorie intake.
Protein: Protein is also important when selecting products. I usually do not look too closely at this area unless I am using the product for recovery after exercise. I typically look at the overall content of protein, carbohydrates, and fats before making the decision if I want to use this for recovery after exercise. If you suspect that you are not taking in enough protein this is an area that you should focus on. The average American again eats way over the daily recommendation of protein.
Vitamins/Minerals: There are only one vitamin (D) and three minerals (calcium, potassium and iron) required to be on a food label. These were found to be the vitamins and minerals that most Americans were most deficient in. This is where it gets frustrating because some products have more vitamins and minerals in them than listed and some will not.
Ingredient List: I find this area to be very useful too. You always want to know what ingredients are in your product. The first 3 ingredients always have the highest molecular weight in the product. I put a lot of emphasis on looking for hydrogenated oils, refrained grains, and sugar when looking at these first few ingredients. If your product contains any of these in the first three ingredients know that the product might not be as healthy as it is trying to claim. Understand that this product might still work for you, but you might have to watch the portion to stay in your daily goals. Above is an ingredient list of for peppermint chocolate. Now this is not something you might not always eat but around the holidays which is ok because it is not typically a regular purchase. Overall, carefully read your ingredient lists on your food before purchasing. If you cannot pronounce the majority of the ingredients on the label understand that this food is highly processed. Understand if you have food allergies or intolerances reading an ingredient list has to be a priority for you for your safety.
Follow along with me for part 2 decoding food claims: Coming Soon