Reading a nutrition label is not as straight-forward as you think. Nutrition labels look simple, but they are actually quite complicated to read if you are trying to eat healthy.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates the content that appears on a nutrition label. The FDA requires that certain nutritional characteristics must be disclosed on the label; however, the stipulations for disclosing such information are questionable.
For instance, as stated in a previous article, Partially Hydrogenated Oils and Trans Fat, there are loop holes that companies can slip through to minimize the potentially negative effects of disclosing accurate information about food products. One major loop hole is the rounding requirement. If a food product contains less than 0.5 grams of trans fat, the quantity reported on the nutrition label must be 0 grams. This is misleading and gives consumers a false perception of the food.
So, how do we trudge through the brush? Below is a simple guide that can help you develop a realistic perception of a food product and make better purchasing decisions.
Step 1: Look at the ingredients list
Before worrying about the nutritional content of the food, take a look at the ingredients list. This usually appears below the nutrition label. The following image is an example.
If this list is long and contains a bunch of words you can not pronounce, chances are the food contains a lot of non-food items. As a rule of thumb, it is better to choose foods with a very short ingredients list. Also, make sure the list contains mostly food items. However, sometimes vitamins and minerals are added to food products, which makes the ingredients list look long and complicated. In this case, the length of the ingredients may be unimportant. Your best bet is to use your knowledge and intuition.
Step 2: Look for culprit ingredients
The big culprit ingredients are partially hydrogenated oils (trans fat) and high fructose corn syrup. There are plenty more, but these two are the leaders of the pack. If a list of ingredients contains either of these items, put it back on the shelf. Period.
Step 3: Find the macronutrient content
Macronutrients include fat, carbohydrates, and protein. All three of these are needed to fuel your body and keep you healthy. Please read that again: ALL THREE OF THESE are needed to fuel your body and keep you healthy. Fat is necessary in your diet, as are carbohydrates, and everyone needs protein.
The key is to eat a balance of fat, carbs, and protein in proportion to the amount your body needs. This does not mean you have to perform calculations and keep track of each gram you put in your mouth. Instead, generally assess your overall diet. Do you eat a lot of beef? Do you eat mostly vegetables? Do you eat a lunch meat sandwich every day? Do you eat fruit for breakfast or snacks? Do your dinners consist of mostly pasta noodles? Knowing your general food habits gives you the general ratio of fat, carbs, and protein you are eating.
For instance, if you eat mostly meat at each meal and rarely eat vegetables or grains, you can assume that you generally consume proportionally more protein and fat than carbohydrates. However, if you mostly eat fruit, salads, and rice, you are more carb-heavy and consume proportionally less protein and fat.
Choose foods that help balance your fat, carb, and protein intake. However, there are a few stipulations to this, so read on.
Step 4: Look at the sub-macronutrients
We all hear that saturated fats are bad and unsaturated fats are good. Since there is not enough space in this article to discuss this concept, let us assume you do not want to eat foods with saturated fat. In this case, choose foods with 0 grams of saturated fat. There may still be some fat in the food; but the fat content is probably unsaturated, which you are generally okay with right now. (Remember that your cells, especially your brain cells, need fat in order to communicate effectively.)
You can totally ignore the trans fat content because you already looked in the ingredients list for the term “partially hydrogenated oils” and would have put the food back on the shelf if the term was present. Period. However, if the food does contain partially hydrogenated oils, you can still ignore the trans fat content in the nutrition label because it probably says “0 grams”, which is a big fat lie (pun likely intended). For whatever reason, if you must buy foods with partially hydrogenated oils, just make sure there is no more than “0 grams” of trans fat on the label; and then slap yourself on the wrist.
Next, look at the fiber content under the carbohydrate category. If there is no fiber in that food, fine. You better be eating some fruit and veggies, though. However, if there is fiber, the food you are holding wins bonus points.
Now look for the sugar content. “Sugar” is a sub-set of carbohydrates that absorbs very quickly into your bloodstream. Sugar is the substance that makes food taste sweet. Sources of sugar include sugar cane, honey, fruit, milk, and some vegetables. The rule of thumb is to choose foods low in sugar. Some foods naturally contain sugar, but many food items contain “added sugar”. Look back to the ingredients list and check for the word “sugar”. If it is not present, look for words ending in “-ose”, such as “fructose”, “sucrose”, or “maltose”. These are different types of sugar listed as their chemical name. Generally, foods that naturally contain sugar will have some sugar appear in the nutrition label, but not in the ingredients list. If the word “sugar” or “-ose” appear in the ingredients list, then the food contains “added sugar”.
Do not forget about protein. If you eat a lot of meat on a daily basis, you may not need to worry about protein. However, if you eat mostly vegetables, it may be beneficial to choose higher-protein foods.
Step 5: Look for micronutrients
Micronutrients consist of vitamins and minerals. Vitamins and minerals do not provide fuel for your body; rather, they support your body’s functions.
Choose foods that naturally contain micronutrients. Many processed foods, such as cereal, contain “added micronutrients”. If you are deciding between two foods of equal price, ingredients, and macronutrient content, choose the one with the better micronutrient profile.
Step 6: Other stuff
Take a look at the cholesterol, salt, and potassium content. You want foods low in cholesterol and salt (ideally with no cholesterol or salt). You also want foods high in potassium. It is okay if the food does not have potassium since you are getting plenty from the fruits and veggies you eat every day (right?).
Do not pay too much attention to the daily value percentage. Everyone has their own personal dietary needs and desires, so the percentages probably do not apply to you. People on a 2,000 calorie diet plan can use the percentages to keep track of their daily allowance. You, however, do not count calories and are simply interested in making an optimal food choice relative to your general needs.
Definitely pay attention to the serving size. A cookie may be surprisingly low in saturated fat, yet the serving size is one cookie. If you plan on having a couple cookies, consider another option with a higher serving size-to-fat ratio. Also, do not be fooled marketing tactics, such as “low fat” or “low sugar” claims. Always check the serving size-to-fat ratio and the serving size-to-sugar ratio. Determine whether adhering to the recommended serving size is realistic or if you will likely have more. This will give you a better idea of how much fat and sugar you will actually consume.
Raid your pantry and practice reading the ingredients and nutrition labels. Go through the steps and compare food items. Determine which items in your pantry truly match your food needs and goals. Mentally note a couple important items that you want to look out for during your next grocery store trip. When you are at the store, do not simply select a food item based on brand or price. Turn the package over and look at the ingredients list and nutrition label. Compare the information to the ingredients list and nutrition label of another food item. Does your purchasing decision change based on what you see on the labels?