“If a third grader can not pronounce the list of ingredients on a nutrition label I would stay away from it.” I wish I could remember who said this, but it stuck with me.
Before Covid, I did a workshop at a local high school and I let the class read the ingredients of a nutrition label. Then the students had to guess what the actual food was. They didn’t figure it out. It was hilarious and also sad: fruit loops. I wish I had a picture of the faces. A mix between confusion and disgust.
An extreme example, I get it, but it just goes to show that we need to pay attention to what our food is made of.
With diet trends coming in and out of the spotlight, it’s challenging to keep up with what’s actually healthy and what’s not. Food companies market their products with fancy headlines, such as “organic,” “low-calorie,” or “vegan,” but these labels can oftentimes be deceiving. Food labels hold a great deal of information, and it’s essential to understand them. With the information below, you’ll be able to start your healthy choices efficiently by making informed decisions right in the grocery store aisle! Here’s how to read food labels to better understand what you’re eating and make healthy choices for yourself and your loved ones.
Read the Ingredients List
Ingredient labels are on all foods that contain two or more ingredients. The most predominant ingredient is listed first, going in order of decreasing weight. Therefore, the ingredient listed first is the ingredient that weighs the most.
Look out for preservatives and additives near the end of an ingredient list. Preservatives are a type of food additive used to prolong the shelf life of products; however some food preservatives can be very harmful. Common chemical food preservatives to watch out for are benzoates, butyrates, benzoic acid and calcium sorbate. The more unfamiliar, scientific names you see, the more additives there likely are in your food. Typically, the shorter the ingredient list, the better.
Understand the Nutrition Label
Nutrition labels contain critical health information, but the many numbers can easily become confusing and overwhelming. Let’s break it down. The first bit of information is usually the number of calories per serving. The next number typically represents the carbohydrates categorized into fiber, total sugars, and added sugars. The total sugars category indicates the sugars naturally present as well as any added sugars while the added sugars category only includes the sugars that were added during the processing of foods such as sweeteners and concentrates.
Together, carbohydrates, proteins, and fats compose the three main macronutrients. A nutrition label also contains sodium, which is the amount of salt, and cholesterol. At the bottom, there is a list of micronutrients, including minerals and vitamins. When looking at the nutritional information, you typically want to see smaller measurements for saturated fat, sodium and added sugars and larger measurements for micronutrients.
Pay Attention to Serving Sizes
Nutrition labels and calories mean nothing without the context of serving sizes. However, this number is usually small and easily missed. The serving information is located above the calories and nutrients, but the big bold font of the calories category usually draws the eye right away. According to the FDA, the serving size reflects the amount that people typically eat or drink and is not a recommendation of how much you should eat or drink!
Be cautious; serving sizes can sometimes be unrealistically small on many food items that claim to be “low-calorie” or “low-fat.” While the numbers on the label may appear low, the amount that the average person would eat turns out to be not-so-low-calorie at all. When choosing between different brands or food packages, pay attention to the serving sizes to get an accurate comparison.
Understand the Percent Daily Values
Percent daily values (% DV) give context to the numbers on a nutrition label. They explain the percent of macronutrients or micronutrients that a serving size contains in reference to recommended daily intakes. Generally, anything less than 5% DV is low, and anything over 20% DV is high. Try to avoid high %DV for nutrients such as saturated fats, salt, or added sugars, and aim for high percentages for micronutrients, fiber, and proteins. However, everyone is different and requires different amounts of these nutrients, depending on their health, age, and other factors.
Be Aware of Different Types of Sugars
Just because a food doesn’t have “sugar” at the top of its ingredient list doesn’t mean it’s low in all sugars. Keep your eyes peeled for different types of sweeteners and sugars, such as honey, nectar, fructose, glucose, or molasses. These are all types of sugars used in processing that will appear under the added sugars number.
Consider the Context
It is important to acknowledge that all information shown on nutrition labels is based on a diet of 2,000 calories a day. Depending on your age, gender, and activity level you may need more or less than 2,000 calories a day. If you are trying to lose, gain or maintain your weight, you can still make use of the % daily values by comparing them with the daily values needed in your unique diet.
One of the first steps to a healthy lifestyle is a healthy diet, and a healthy diet starts with healthy ingredients! Now that you understand nutrition labels, you can ensure that healthy foods are the only foods going into your pantry with a quick label scan in the grocery store aisle. Knowing what to look for in nutrition labels is empowering for making informed decisions and is a significant step forward in your health journey.
If you need extra support and accountability on your wellness journey, working with a health coach might be the perfect solution. During a strategy session, we will discuss your goals and come up with a plan that is tailored specifically for you. If you are ready to take action and create the life you love, click here now to schedule your free call.