Even though I eat wholesome, unprocessed foods most of the time, I still from time to time eat processed and packaged foods. And truth be told, if you’re savvy and eat the right processed and packaged foods, they’re not too bad for you.
With all that being said, here is the skinny on reading nutrition labels! (pun sort of intended there :))
***also, these are for the United States, other countries are pretty similar, but all these following information apply specifically to the United States
–First, nutrition fact labels are mandated by the FDA (Food and Drug Administration). So on all packaged and processed foods, you’ll find the “Nutrition Facts” box plus the ingredients list.
–Starting with the “Nutrition Facts” box, these come in two ways. The vertical and horizontal. The vertical format is a lot easier to look and use, while the horizontal format is more confusing. The horizontal format is usually placed on foods that are smaller and make it hard for the vertical format to fit on, think about granola bars and such.
–Now under the big bold “Nutrition Facts” header, you have the serving size and servings per container. This is really important to look at.
First, it’s important when comparing two different food items while at the store. Let’s say you pick up a bag of granola and just like everyone, your eyes go to the Calories section. You see that granola A has 200 Calories while granola B has 150.
So you assume that granola B has less Caloric content and put that in your cart. HOWEVER, what if the serving size of granola A was 1 cup while the serving size of granola B was a quarter cup? This means that you just put the high caloric granola (not that calorie high foods are bad since not all calories are created equal) in your cart unintentionally. You need four serving sizes of granola B to match one serving size of granola A. So it’s actually a comparison between granola B’s 600 Calories to granola A’s 200 Calories.
It’s also important to note that the serving size that the food company recommends isn’t always the right portion. The food companies can make their serving size as big and small as they want to. So while you may think that eating 1 cup of granola is okay because that’s what the serving size says, 1 cup of granola might be in reality too much.
Nevertheless, you do want to be aware of the servings per container even if the servings themselves may not be correct. You don’t to be eating a whole pint of ice cream when the label specifies the pint is for FOUR, not ONE.
–Next, are Calories. I don’t think I have to talk too much on this section since Calories are what seem to run the food industry.
The scientific terms don’t really help much in defining a Calories (If you’re interested, one Calorie is the energy needed to raise one gram of water one degree Celsius).
We have all heard the phrase that not all Calories are equal, so Calories shouldn’t really dictate whether or not you eat the food. It really puzzles me to see people eat so many of those rice cakes. Whenever I ask them why, the response is something along the lines of low calories.
In terms of Calories, Serena is my role model. I remember that she told me that doesn’t really pay attention to Calories, and that’s amazing. That’s how we should live. (Now this shouldn’t be misinterpreted into a message where you are allowed to eat anything you want. NO, this is not that.)
One thing to note though, is that if a food item is less than 5 Calories, the food company can state that their food has zero-calories. That means that even if the food has 4 Calories, the nutrition label can still say zero calories. In reality, it actually doesn’t make sense that anything has zero calories. No matter how bad or good a food is, anything you put in your mouth is going to give you some form of energy.
–Next, fat. I’m not going to talk in great detail about fats because I wrote a blog post about what fats are good for you and what fats are not good for you. I highly encourage you to read it if you haven’t, because you’ll learn that fats do not make you fat. It’s the type of fats that determines your health.
Anyways, sometimes, you might not see unsaturated fats listed on there. However, if you subtract the other fats (Saturated fats, Trans fats) from the Total Fat, you’ll get unsaturated fats.
Also, similar to the less than 5 Calorie thing, don’t be fooled by that 0 next to the trans fats. Companies are allowed to put down 0g of trans fat if the food item has less than 0.5g of trans fat per serving. In my opinion, I think this is unfair and corrupt, but because I can’t do much about it, I’ll just have to stick with my savvy knowledge.
However, unlike the Calorie trick, you can get away with the trans fat one. You know a food item has trans fat if you look at the ingredient list. If in the ingredient list you see the word “hydrogenated,” this means it has trans fat.
–Next up, carbohydrates. I’m going to skip over cholesterol and sodium. Dietary cholesterol doesn’t have anything to do with your blood cholesterol, but in reality it’s the fats you eat that links with your blood cholesterol. For sodium, you really want to stay away from it as most as you can. Sodium is added salt.
For carbohydrates, you want it to have a lot of fiber. Fiber slows down digestion, aka, meaning you’ll full longer.
In terms of sugar, the higher the sugar, the higher the food’s glycemic index (GI). The GI of a food tells you how the increase of blood sugar that food is going to give. The lower, the better.
–Last but not least, protein is pretty simple because there is only one category. One important thing to note is that we don’t need that much protein than we think we should. These days, protein is all the rage. Protein bars, protein shakes, etc. But you get enough protein from foods that aren’t specifically rich with proteins. So you can easy with the proteins and proper muscle health and etc.
–Moving onto INGREDIENTS….
Ingredients are listed in order from which ingredient is the most abundant in that food to the least.
So in something like a loaf of bread, you should see the first ingredient something along the lines of flour. For granola, rolled oats.
Now onto my tips since it’s going to be hard to memorize and retain all the above information.
***One good thing to note is that you don’t have to follow all of these “rules” or “guidelines.” Personally, I don’t follow them all the time. It would be a sad life if I had to let go of a food item because it didn’t fit one of these rules. I’m giving these guidelines so it allows you to be a smarter and more aware shopper. While picking a food item, it’s going to be more advantageous to you to know about these following facts versus picking the same food and not knowing about it. In terms of nutrition knowledge, it contradicts the phrase “the less you know, the better,” but “the more you know, the better.”
For the Nutrients Facts portion:
serving size – Assuming that nobody carries around measuring cups, here are a few serving size equivalents that you can measure with your hand.
1 cup = the size of your fist
3 oz (this is the recommended serving size for meat – steak, chicken, seafood fillet) = your palm excluding your fingers (or the size of a deck of cards)
1 oz = the scoop of your hand
1 oz of nuts = 1 handful of nuts
1 oz = the size of your thumb => This is useful for spreads such as peanut butter. You can’t really scoop up a glob of peanut butter, but you can visualize a glob of peanut butter the size of your thumb.
1 teaspoon = the tip of your thumb
ex. 1 teaspoon of oil
The magic number for sodium is 140g
If the sodium content is more than 140g => labelled as high in sodium
If the sodium content is less than 140g => labelled as low in sodium
If the sodium content is less than 35g => labelled as very low in sodium
For the Ingredients portion:
Because the ingredients are listed from the most abundant to the least abundant, the first item on the list should make sense based on the food item.
For instance, a loaf of whole wheat bread’s first item should be whole wheat flour. However, some bread have water as the first ingredient. Does that make sense to you? It doesn’t to me.
If it doesn’t make sense, DON’T take the benefit of the doubt and actually be skeptic. In other words, put it back on the shelf and move onto a different food item.
Try to have the food item with the least amount of ingredients. The fewer the better.
Make sure you can pronounce and visualize all the ingredients. I have to add in the visualize because some people can pronounce “monosodium glutamate,” but can’t visualize it.
Don’t buy the “natural” claim. For foods like Cheerios with their claim to lower cholesterol, they actually need to get it passed by the FDA. However, any company can patch on the label “natural.” That’s why you see on soda bottles, “natural” ingredients or in other places that don’t really make sense. So just keep a blind eye for the “natural” label.
Whew, that was a lot! All in all, life is all about pleasure and enjoying yourself. I wrote this post with the intention of making you aware but never to make yourself feel deprived. It’s important to find the 80/20 balance where you eat healthy and “perfect” 80% of the time and let yourself a bit loose 20% of the time. As much as it is important to be physically healthy, it’s important to be mentally and physiologically healthy. It’s all about finding a balanced and sustainable lifestyle and many a times this means letting yourself and indulge on not-so-good things once in awhile.
What surprised you the most?