Most good food brands print nutrition labels on packaged foods so that you know what’s in the food you’re buying and eating.
Well…at least in theory. Because how often do you stare at the nutrition label of a box and wonder —- how do I pronounce that? Are there any additives and preservatives on this list? And how many calories am I actually eating when I pop two servings on to my plate?
Truth is; nutrition labels can be tricky to decipher….especially if you don’t understand what all those things mean. So here’s your compete guide to reading nutrition labels so that shopping for healthy, nutritious foods becomes a whole lot easier and quicker.
Calories and Serving Size Goes Hand In Hand
I learnt this the hard way. I once ate a whole bag of chips because I read it had 150 calories per serving size, and I assumed the whole bag to be just one serving. But it turned out the bag had 3 servings, and I had just wolfed down 450 calories in a go. Shocker, right?!
Always check the serving size, then the calories per serving, and do your own math. Also, be aware that these FDA recommended serving sizes mentioned on food labels are based on average consumption, not ideal consumption. So, don’t assume that you should only eat a serving at a time. If your oatmeal requires two servings of steel cut oats, and that’s what your dietician recommends, eat two servings by all means and calculate your caloric consumption accordingly (if you are into that kind of thing).
A Calorie IS Not Just A Calorie
If you are trying to lose weight, don’t let the calories/serving become the only thing you read on that label. Truth is, not all calories are created equal. Getting 150 calories from potato chips is NOT THE SAME as getting 150 calories from steel cut oats, right?! Higher calorie nutrient-dense foods are important in your diet, they will keep you feeling full for longer. They will also prevent mindless binging on empty-calorie snacks later.
Not All Fats Are Created Equal
Don’t be a fat-phobe! Instead of reading how much fats are in the food you’re buying, read where those fats come from. Adding healthy saturated fat to your diet is a good idea, while trans fats are not. It’s for this reason that the FDA has decided to modernize Nutrition Facts label for packaged foods to remove “Calories from Fat.” Because research shows the type of fat is more important than the amount.
Read the label to know the quantity of saturated, polyunsaturated, monounsaturated, and trans-fats in the foods you’re buying to make an informed decision.
As a thumb rule, eat more high quality saturated fats (butter, coconut oil, ghee), limit polyunsaturated fats (you want more omega 3s, not omega 6s), be wise about monounsaturated fats (like peanut oil, seasame oil) and completely avoid trans-fat foods. Also, be aware that a product can list 0 grams (g) trans-fat even if it contains 0.5g trans-fat/serving. So, it’s best to read the ingredient list to spot “shortening” or “partially hydrogenated oil” — these are NOT fats you want to be eating if you care about your cardiac health.
The Percent of Daily Values Can Be A Good Guide
Calculated for the average diet of 2,000 calories/day, the Percent Daily Values (% DV) tells you how much percentage of every nutrient is in a single serving of the food. If you want to eat more of a nutrient, say fiber, look for products with more than 15% DV of the same. If you want to cut back on a nutrient, say sodium, look for products with less than 5% DV of the same as a rough guide.
Sugar Can Be Complicated
For a healthy, nutritious diet, buy products with 10 grams or less sugar/serving.
Unfortunately, nutrition labels don’t differentiate between natural or added sugar. That’s why it’s wise to read the ingredient list carefully to know what kind of sugar the food contains.
Look for the words ‘sugar’ or ‘syrup’ – for example corn syrup, brown rice syrup, palm sugar, and cane sugar. Also, anything that ends in ‘ose’ is sugar – like glucose, fructose, dextrose, maltose etc. Be aware that the ingredients are listed by volume —higher up on the ingredient list these sugars appear, the more quantity is in the product. So if any of these sugars are the first 3 ingredients on the list, don’t buy that product —- it’s filled with added sugars and will provide little nutritional value. However, some smart food manufacturers have found a way to fool consumers by split up sugar into dextrose, cane crystals, high-fructose corn syrup etc., so none of these nasty ingredients are amongst the first 3. In that case, take the safe route and avoid foods with various forms of sugar added to it.
Watch Out For Sodium Content
The USDA recommends 2,300-2,400mg of sodium/day, but you’d be surprised to know that sodium can turn up in the most unexpected of labels, so it’s always good to keep a check. Excess sodium increases blood pressure and is not good for heart health.
If you’re on a low-sodium diet, look for products with 140 milligrams/ serving of sodium or lesser. If not, limit sodium intake to 400-500mg/serving.
Keep An Eye On Fiber/Serving
Yes, fiber is your friend, so products which include at least 3gm of fiber/serving are a good start. Also, anything with grains like pastas, breads, soups and baked foods should contain a healthy dose of fiber/serving.
Look for Products Fortified With Vitamins and Minerals
Again, like the Percent of Daily Values, these are calculated for the average 2,000-calorie-a-day diet. So look for products that have more vitamins and minerals – both naturally occurring as well as added. Try to get more of potassium, calcium, iron and vitamin A, C and D.
Don’t Be Afraid Of Cholesterol
Although cholesterol gets a bad rap these days, it isn’t quite the villain it’s made out to be. Cholesterol is found in animal products – like dairy, meats, fish and eggs. While the earlier USDA recommended limit of dietary cholesterol was set at 300 mg, the revised 2015 – 2020 Dietary Guidelines for American removed it, stating that there’s insufficient scientific evidence that eating dietary cholesterol raises blood cholesterol levels.
Total Carbohydrates Isn’t Very Helpful
The total carbohydrates lists together all carbohydrates – the unhealthy refined carbs, the healthy wholegrains and sugars, which is tricky. Your best bet to know WHAT carbs you’re actually eating is to check the ingredient list – again. Look for the word ‘whole’ – like whole grain or whole wheat. If the label says ‘enriched’, the grains have been refined and are not the healthiest of choices. To know how healthy the food is, a better idea is to look at sugar and fiber numbers instead.
A Word About The Ingredient List
Products go into the list based on their quantity, so the ones that come first make up for the bulk of the food. Also, reading through this list will help you identify any ingredients you may be allergic to. However, sometimes the list can be very long, and you can’t pronounce half the things there. In the most ideal case, the ingredient list will be short and you’ll recognize everything mentioned on it. If you can, it is a sign that the food is healthy and doesn’t contain nasty additives. However, when the list is very long, it’s best to read just the first 10 ingredients and look for keywords that tell you it has bad carbs or too much added sugars. And when you can’t pronounce some of these first few ingredients, because they seem like words right out of a chemistry class – leave the food behind on the shelf.
Be Wary of Nutritional Claims
In my experience, more often than not, these are not always the most healthful choice. For example – I personally don’t eat anything that says ‘sugar-free’. Often the product uses artificial sweeteners or sugar alcohols which are just as bad, if not worse. Be aware that if you have diabetes, products that use ‘sugar-free’ can technically contain natural sweeteners like dates, molasses, or honey, which will all raise your blood sugar level.
“Low Fat” labels are just as bad. When manufacturers remove satiating and delicious fat from foods, they need to replace it with added sugars, which is way worse. Sometimes they may also add extra salt or artificial flavors to improve the taste.
Other health-food buzzwords manufacturers love to add are ‘organic’, ‘antioxidant-enriched’, ‘gluten-free’ and ‘GMO-free’. GMO-free only comes into play when you’re buying foods that include soy and corn. However, just by labelling something GMO-free doesn’t mean it’s the epitome of good nutrition.
Please read the nutrition label in detail to make an informed decision. As for gluten-free, unless you have celiac disease or gluten allergy, giving up gluten can have serious consequences for your health, as many gluten-free packaged foods are diet-bombs in reality.