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5 Simple Tips for Understanding Food Nutrition Labels

Learn to read nutrition label

Demystifying Nutrition Labels

If you’re reading this, chances are you’re trying to lead a healthy lifestyle. As many of you know, we always want to eat as little prepackaged foods as possible. But, of course, everyone eats at least some package foods no matter how healthy they are.

Since prepackaged foods are practically unavoidable and can provide convenience, let’s arm ourselves with the knowledge of what these products contain and what hazards certain ingredients may have to our health. It’s easy to be fooled by terms like organic or natural, or think that if something is in the natural foods section of the grocery store it must be healthy. Sadly, that’s not true.

Here are my tips to help you navigate the food label maze.

Tip # 1: Ingredients Matter

Ingredients are listed in the order of most to least thus it’s important to focus on the first few ingredients and make sure they’re quality ingredients. I also recommend looking for products that have short ingredient lists, five or less.

Let’s look at one ingredient list for Honey Wheat Whole Grain Bread.

The first ingredient in this product is wheat flour. Sounds healthy, right? Unfortunately, wheat flour isn’t the same as whole wheat or whole grain flour. It’s a refined processed wheat. The second ingredient is water and the third is vegetable shortening. Vegetable shortening may sound healthy because it’s from vegetables but in actuality it’s partially hydrogenated soybean oil (chemical process that turns fat into an unhealthy shelf stable trans fat). Further done on the list we finally get to whole wheat flour. Deceiving. Look for 100% whole grain as the first ingredient with a few quality ingredients to follow.

Look for quality ingredients that you recognize but don’t be fooled. Take a moment to pull out your smartphone and “Google” the ingredients. Be aware of seemingly healthy ingredients such as “natural flavors” or ingredients that sound like vitamins. Know what you are eating. You’re health depends upon it.

Tip # 2: Calories Matter (sort of)

Many people focus on the calories on a nutrition label. While we want to be mindful of calories, I want to stress that the quality of the calories you’re eating are far more important. A 100 calorie Weight Watchers Cherry Cheesecake ice cream bar isn’t going to give you the same nutrition as a 100 calorie serving of frozen organic broccoli. The quality of the food you consume provides messages to your body that either enhances or depletes your health. Choose your calories wisely.

Let’s talk about the rest of the nutrition label and what it means.

Tip # 3: Serving Size is Important

Always check the number of servings in the package as you may be getting more than you bargained for, such as sugars.

For example, a tall can of coconut water typically contains 2 servings. The numbers listed on this nutrition label are for 1 serving of coconut water which contains about 12 grams of sugar. If you drink the whole can, that’s 24 grams of sugar which is the entire maximum amount of sugar that the American Heart Association recommends a woman consume per day.

Now let’s look at the rest of the label.

Tip # 4: Understand the Details of Key Nutrition Terms

Let’s look at the fats. Look primarily to completely avoid trans fats. Trans fats are fake fats that are created chemically and can be very damaging to the body. Packaging can be very sneaky because FDA regulations allow labels to read “Contains 0 trans fats” if there are fewer than 0.5 grams of trans fat.

Next we have cholesterol. According the WebMD, the “cholesterol in food isn’t the same thing as the cholesterol that clogs arteries.” Instead, body cholesterol levels are affected by the quality of our fats and the amount of refined carbohydrates and sugars we’re consuming.

Then we have sodium. The recommended maximum intake of sodium is 2400 mg per day for a very healthy person. But for people over 50, or if you have a health condition, it’s recommended that you get 1500 mg of sodium or less per day.

To give you a better understanding of sodium recommendations, 1 tsp of salt gives you about 2400 mg of sodium.

Now let’s move on to carbohydrates and specifically sugars. Even if the package says “0 sugar” on the package, look at the ingredients list for two reasons. 1) To see if there are any artificial sugars in the ingredients list. Artificial sugars are never good for you and cause more harm than good. 2) FDA regulations allow food packages to claim they have 0 sugar if they, in fact, have 0.5 grams or less.

Sugar can be disguised as sucrose, dextrose, corn syrup, malt, fructose, glucose, carbitol, mannitol, lactose, evaporated cane juice, concentrated fruit juice and more.

For your reference: 4 grams of sugar equals 1 teaspoon of sugar

The American Heart Association recommends 24 grams of sugar or less for women and 32 grams of sugar or less for men.

Tip # 5: Don’t be Confused by FDA Percentages

On the right hand side of the label, you’ll see a list of daily value percentages. These are based on the amount of that nutrient that is recommended for someone who eats around 2000 calories per day. If your daily caloric intake is lower or higher than 2000, be aware that the percentages on the labels will be different for you. Honestly, I skip reading this section of the label and instead focus on tips 1 - 4.

And finally…marketers are tricky. They know how to get around regulations by changing certain things on food packages. So beware of marketing madness. There are so many buzzwords out there that are trying to make us buy foods by giving the impression that it’s healthy like “sugar-free”, “low fat”, “natural”. Instead of buying something based on those words, look thoroughly at the nutrition label.

Now you’re armed with the information needed to make smarter choices when shopping for groceries. In today’s world, most of us will never be 100% free of packaged foods, but the more aware we are of what’s actually in our foods, the more we’re able to nourish our whole selves.

Check out my video on How to Read A Nutrition label:

Or, view the video at the Empowered Women’s Wellness Club.

To your happiness and health,

  • Tanya



Nutrition Labels Video