Nutrition Labels Decoded

Reading the label should be a simple thing, but when you are never really taught what to look for and the food industry is constantly coming up with new ways of making their processed crap seem healthy, it can be tough to know how to read them correctly! The food industry often puts things like “heart-healthy”, “low-fat”, “natural”, etc. on a package’s front to trick the consumer into believing its healthy, but delve into the ingredients and the nutrition label and you will discover quite the contrary!

To give you a basic run down of how to read a nutrition label, first know that the ingredients are listed in descending order of weight in the food. So whatever ingredient is listed first has the heaviest prevalence in the food, and this pattern continues down the list up until the last ingredient which will compose the smallest prevalence of the food. The food industry is a tricky business and they try their hardest to deceive you into believing that many of their items are “healthy” or naming things such as sugars and salts into multiple different names in the ingredients to move them further down the ingredient list.. I mean would you buy a food if the first ingredient was sugar? Probably not, and the food industry knows this.

How to skim the ingredients list?

Most of the time, if the ingredient list is long or has ingredients that you can’t pronounce or understand, put the food down and keep on walkin’! You should carefully check ingredients for contents like partially hydrogenated and hydrogenated oils, as these signify the presence of trans fats. Fortunately, it’s getting easier and easier just to find brands that have no hydrogenated fats among the ingredients. It is also very important to look for added sugars (see below) and whole grains—the label has to say “whole,” not just “wheat flour.”

How to spot sugar on the ingredients list?

Sugar is like a criminal on the run constantly changing his name to conceal his true identity. It hides behind a plethora of names.. but don’t be fooled, they’re all really just sugar. When reading a label list, sugar will be hiding behind the identity of anything ending with -ose (sucrose, fructose, maltose, glucose, etc.) But just because a food item doesn’t end in -ose that does NOT qualify you as in the clear from sugars. It also hides behind the following names: Cane juice, Dehydrated cane juice, Cane juice solids, Cane juice crystals, Dextrin, Maltodextrin, Dextran, Barley malt, Beet sugar, Corn syrup, Corn syrup solids, Caramel, Buttered syrup, Carob syrup, Brown sugar, Date sugar, Malt syrup, Diatase, Diatastic malt, Fruit juice, Fruit juice concentrate, Dehydrated fruit juice, Fruit juice crystals, Golden syrup, Turbinado,  Sorghum syrup, Refiner’s syrup, Ethyl maltol, Maple syrup, Yellow sugar

Servings per container: This one actually seems to really surprise people. When comparing the calories and nutrition information in the food, you have to look to see how many servings of that are actually in the food. So often I have friends with a soda say, “But it only has 100 calories!” But when you look closer you will see that there are 2.5 servings per container, meaning that the soda in fact has 2.5 x 100= 250 calories (and we don’t even wanna go to how much sugar!).

Serving size: A tablespoon and a cup are two entirely different things… And listed serving sizes are often unrealistically small. If you eat more than what the serving size indicates, you need to multiply all nutritional contents accordingly.

Fat matters: Fat is not necessarily your enemy. When reading a label, more important than total fat are the numbers for saturated, polyunsaturated, monounsaturated, and trans fats. Amounts are rounded to the nearest whole number, so 0.4 gram would be listed as 0 grams, 0.8 gram would be listed as 1 gram and so on. You want to limit your saturated fat to 5% or less of your total calories (divide your body weight by 12 to get the total daily limit of saturated fat in grams).You want to see that the food has very low numbers of saturated fat, no trans fat, and higher numbers of polyunsaturated and monounsaturated (these are the healthy fats). It’s also important to remember that “fat-free” does not mean “calorie-;free” or healthier!! The fat is simply replaced with added sugar to make the food still taste good. Further down you will see cholesterol content, but this is irrelevant as your blood cholesterol levels depend more on saturated-fat and trans-fat intake than on cholesterol intake so you can ignore this one.

Carbs: Carbohydrates are pretty simple.. If you’re trying to lose or maintain weight, buy products with 40 grams or less of “Total Carbohydrate” per serving. Carbs are further broken down into dietary fibers and sugars– choose foods higher in fiber (4 grams or more per serving) and comprised of low amounts of sugar (<25% of total carbs).

What to Limit & Look for: Limit your intake of saturated & trans fat, sodium, & sugars. On the other hand, ensure that you are getting and adequate amount of dietary fiber, protein, and vitamins.

% Daily Value: At the extreme right of the label you’ll see each nutrient’s percentage of your total daily intake based upon the guess that you take in 2,000 calories a day. The % daily value is how much 1 serving of the food will constitute for your daily needs of that food category. This is based on a 2000 calorie diet, which is not true for everyone, so it isn’t too important to look at. Instead, look at the actual grams or milligrams of the nutrients in question.

Takeaway points: Hopefully I kept this simple enough, unfortunately I feel like food labels are majorly overcomplicated, but this is why it is so important for you to know the basics of what to look for! An idea to arm yourself with the knowledge you need to read food labels, write down on your shopping list: 1. Ingredients!!, 2. Serving Size, 3. Calories (<400), 4. Total Carbs (<40), 5. limit sugar. Your safest bet is to fill most of your grocery cart with fruits, veggies, nuts, and meats, and leave only about 25% for the processed & labeled foods. My hope is that now you will know how to make better choices with those labeled foods and improve your lifestyle!! Happy label reading everyone 🙂


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