Understanding Nutrition Labels
Breaking down your nutrition label
Have you ever wanted to learn what your nutrition label really means? And no, we’re not talking about just the calorie count and serving size. We’re talking about what each part of the label means, not just on the surface level. First off, you can find a nutrition label on most food items. Many have them located on the backside of their packaging, usually you’ll only see a nutrition label on foods that are not “whole” foods. Nutrition labels can be daunting, and more often than not, people forgo looking at them because they are unable to decipher what it all actually means. In simplest form, nutrition labels include:
- Serving Size
- Total Fat
- Total Carbohydrate
- % of Daily Value
Let’s dive into what each part of the label means. By understanding the information the label provides, you will be able to make educated choices about the foods you eat. More importantly you can identify when the nutrition label is giving a false impression of what you are putting into your body.
The first thing to note on the label is serving size. The serving size is the base for all the other parts of the label. For example, the amount of sodium that you see on the label correlates to the listed serving size. Makes sense? You’ll notice on a nutrition label, above the bolded letter “Serving size” there is also “servings per container” which indicates the number of servings that are contained in the entire bag or box etc… It is important to take note of both the serving size and the servings per container so you are able to accurately estimate what you eat. Even if one serving might be low in carbs, per say, it can quickly add up if you eat multiple servings.
Often “healthy” foods appear to have good nutrition values, but if you follow the serving size, it is so small that no one eats that little of it. For example, breakfast cereals may say they are lower in sugar, but the serving size is only ¾ of a cup!
The next large bolded item on a nutrition label is the calorie count. Calories are defined as the measure of a unit of energy in food. This energy is actually essential for your body’s function and your survival. The energy is released and used by the digestive system.
Although calories are a unit of measure, they can come from different sources. They can come from fat, carbohydrates, and protein. Some foods are considered “high calorie” which just means there is a higher ratio of calories per serving. Typically fats are high calorie, but so are very sugary foods and foods with added sugars. Lower calorie foods (like lettuce or cucumber) are often low in calories because they have a higher water content and lack fat or carbohydrates.
Total fat encompasses all types of fat that can be found in the foods we eat. Fat is fuel, but there are good kinds of fuel and bad kinds. While there are several types of fat, nutrition labels often only include trans fats and saturated fat. There are four main types of fat.
Saturated – These fats are predominantly found in dairy products like butter, cheese, and cream as well as other animal byproducts (beef and pork). Some plant oils contain saturated fats too! For example, coconut oil is super rich in saturated fat.
Monounsaturated – Found in olive oil, avocados, nuts, and animal products such as beef, pork, poultry.
Polyunsaturated – Found in seeds, fatty fish, and vegetable oils (soybean, corn, safflower, cottonseed, sunflower).
Trans Fat – There is a very minimal amount of naturally occurring trans fat, most is man made partially hydrogenated oil. It is found in vegetable shortening (Crisco), margarine, and mass-produced processed foods (cookies, crackers, muffins).
Cholesterol is a fatty substance that is only found in animal products. This means vegetables, nuts, seeds and fruit do not contain cholesterol. Often you hear that cholesterol is bad and you should lower your cholesterol as you become older. However, research reveals that for most people the amount of food that you consume that contains cholesterol has no effect on cholesterol in the blood.
People consume sodium through some of the foods we eat but also table salt. Sodium is an essential nutrient, and when following a very low-carb diet, the body changes the way it holds onto sodium. It is unwise to limit sodium unless you are taking high blood pressure medication or otherwise directed by a medical professional.
The total amount of carbohydrates in a given food is measured by grams and then further broken down into carbs from fiber and carbs from sugar. It is important to pay close attention to the total amount of carbohydrates. Carbs from sugar should be at zero grams as often as possible or 1-2 grams at the most if you’re trying to follow a low carb diet. Fiber is listed as a type of carbohydrate which should be incorporated in your daily intake, usually 30g or less. Be careful to pay attention to the serving size though! A product that may have low carbs per serving can easily add up in carbs when you consume 3 or 4 servings. It’s super easy to eat too many carbs for your daily intake!
Vitamin and mineral intake is unique to every person. Vitamins are made organically, meaning that they are produced by the plants and animals you consume. Minerals on the other hand are inorganic materials that must be consumed from an external source to be used.
% Daily Value:
The percent daily value is the percentage of nutrients based on a 2000 calorie per day diet. The diet these percentages are based on is an overly generalized diet that is not calorie-restricted, or specialized to size or gender. Many people may be eating more or less than 2000 calories, so this tends to be less important to pay attention to.
On all food labels, ingredients are listed in order by the weight. Meaning, the first few ingredients on the list would be the main ingredients in the products because they make up the majority of the food product. It is important to look out for a couple of bad ingredients when looking over the ingredients list as well as some “tricks” that may make a food appear more healthy than it is.
Trans Fat – These chemically modified fats are derived from vegetable oils and should be avoided. According to the FDA, which sets laws for US food producers, if a food contains less than ½ g of trans fat per serving, the label is allowed to read 0 g of trans fat. If the serving is unrealistically small, there may be a significant amount of trans fats after several servings are eaten. In order to spot this culprit, be sure to look for words such as “hydrogenated” or “partially hydrogenated” in the ingredients list.
Vegetable Oils – It is best to avoid or try to reduce the amount of foods that list corn, soybean, sunflower, or safflower oil within the first few ingredients. Try to reach for condiments and marinades that are made from olive oil instead! Sometimes foods such as mayonnaise say they are made with avocado oil, but if you look at the ingredients list it also contains soybean oil!
Hidden sugars – Sugars can fly under the radar because there are so many different names and sources. Because of sugar’s many names, it is easy for manufacturers to mask the real amount of sugar and sweetener in the products they’re producing. Some of the many names of sugar include:
- Agave nectar or syrup
- High fructose corn syrup
- Evaporated cane juice
- Brown rice syrup
It may appear like the product has minimal sugar until you realize that it has listed honey, agave, and dextrose throughout the ingredients list. That’s a lot of sugar!
Not all sugars are off limits when you are maintaining a low-carb diet. As long as the total count of carbohydrates is low, you shouldn’t feel guilty for eating foods with some of these sugars. A good example of this is bacon. Some brands of bacon are cured with honey or brown sugar. However, the amount of sugar that is left in the final product is low. It is a good rule to consume foods that contain max 1-2g of carbs per serving, zero if possible!
Just remember it is super important to read your nutrition labels with carbohydrates in mind. This helps you make healthy food choices and makes it easier for you to live a successful low-carb, high fat lifestyle.
Federal Guidelines for Nutrition Labels
According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), food manufacturers are required, by law, to list all ingredients in a food on its nutrition label, abiding by the following rules and regulations:
- Ingredients must be listed in descending order, with those used in the greatest amount listed first.
- The names of any FDA-approved color additives, such as Blue No. 1 or Yellow No. 5, must be included on the label.
- ·Certain ingredients can be listed collectively under umbrella terms like “spices,” “flavors,” “artificial flavoring,” and “artificial colors” (those colors exempt from FDA approval).
- If a food (other than certain egg products, alcohol, poultry, and most meats) contains one of the eight major food allergens (milk, eggs, fin fish, shellfish, tree nuts, peanuts, wheat, soybeans), it must be included on the label. If a collective color, flavor, or spice contains an allergic ingredient, that ingredient should be listed separately.
It is sad to say that many of the food labels today are misleading, and steer people who don’t know what these labels mean in an unhealthy direction. It is easy to be fooled by clever packages and misleading marketing. It’s becoming more popular to see packaging labeled “low-carb” or “sugar free” but actually have hidden sugars that are not beneficial to anyone’s health.
Moreover, the standards for U.S. food manufacturers are much more relaxed compared to other certain other countries. Nutrition panels in Europe and most countries worldwide have a much more precise system where all food information is by 100 gram weights. This leaves a bit of understanding and math up to the consumer, but the actual information is far more accurate than the US label.
In the US, the nutrition panel is based on serving size which is arbitrary and decided on by the food manufacturer. In the US system, if a nutrient, macro or otherwise is less than 0.5 grams per serving, it can be listed as zero grams on the nutrition label. In the case of an unrealistically small serving size the grams add up quickly. This is very misleading, and many manufacturers use this as a loophole to market their products as “low-carb” or “healthy” options.
Tips on Choosing Healthier Foods
So you want to start avoiding foods that have no value to your overall health and wellness, how do you start identifying those foods? You may have heard things like “Avoid food products that contain more than five ingredients.” or “Don’t eat foods that contain ingredients you can’t pronounce or that your grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food”.
Some health sites have popularized scanning the first three ingredients on a label, since they make up the largest part of that food, and avoiding buying the product if refined grains, sugar, or seed oils are in the top three. Some even suggest only buying a product if the first three ingredients are whole foods.
However, the best and easiest way to reach optimal health is to eat real, fresh, whole, unpackaged foods and to heavily avoid consuming processed foods, especially highly processed foods. These are the foods with mile-long ingredients lists that you can’t even pronounce. It is more likely than not that processed foods will have ingredients that are known to promote disease and not health.
All this information can be daunting, but by taking small steps and paying closer attention to the fine print on your food labels, achieving a healthier lifestyle does not have to be as confusing as it may seem. For an even more in depth look at the ins and outs of nutrition labels, take a look at some of the great resources below!
References and Resources
Mark’s Daily Apple: https://www.marksdailyapple.com/nutrition-label-information/