If you’re trying to eat healthy, grocery shopping can be a daunting task. Many products feature slogans claiming to be “low fat,” “high fiber,” “cholesterol free,” “carb smart,” or “light,” all of which can be confusing, misleading, or downright untrue. The nutrition facts printed on the back or side of most food packages tell the truth about the contents of an item, but it can often be hard to understand them. If you’re trying to get your shopping done in a hurry, the information might seem more of a bother than of help. But a quick overview of a nutrition label and what it means can put you on the track to smart shopping and healthy eating!
Clear Up The Confusion Of Nutrition Labels
Let’s begin with the first piece of information on a nutrition facts label, the serving size. This is very important, because all of the information listed below it pertains to the amount of food in one serving of the product. Let’s take breakfast cereal for example. Perhaps you are looking for a breakfast cereal that is low in sugar. If the amount of sugar listed is satisfactory to you, be sure you check the serving size before you buy. Most breakfast cereals list only ½ cup or ¾ cup as a serving size, while most people eat twice that amount in a typical bowl. Ignoring the serving size could result in consuming much more or much less of the nutritional amounts than you think you’re getting.
The next listing you will find is the amount of calories in the item. A calorie is the most basic form of energy in the human body. A healthy person’s daily calorie consumption could be anywhere from 2,000 to 3,000, depending on gender, age, height, and other factors. “Counting calories” is one of the simplest ways to lose weight. If more calories are burned than consumed each day (negative caloric balance), then a person will lose weight. If more calories are consumed than burned each day (positive caloric balance), then a person will gain weight. And if an equal number of calories are consumed and burned each day, then a person will maintain their weight. Of course, the negative or positive caloric balance must be maintained for several weeks to have any effect on weight. But the calories on a food label can assist a person in their weight loss goals if that information is combined with the number of calories burned each day through exercise.
Fat is the third item listed on a nutrition facts label. You will notice that usually, the words “total fat” are printed in bold, followed by other types of fat printed in regular font, such as saturated, unsaturated, and trans fat. A leading misconception about food is that all fat is bad and should be avoided in order to be healthy. This is simply not true! Many foods such as oil, nuts, peanut butter, and margarine contain healthy fats. Omega-three fatty acids, found in fish, are especially helpful to the human body.
The foods that should be avoided are those that contain high levels of saturated fat, such as whole milk, potato chips, and other “junk food.” Trans fat is the worst of them all. Trans fat does not occur naturally in any food; it was engineered by humans through the process of partial hydrogenation. Once used frequently in the production of many snack foods, trans fats have now been almost totally eradicated because of the discovery of their negative effects on human health. Many foods now proudly advertise that they contain “no trans fats!” But always check the nutrition facts to be sure.
Below fat, you will find information on cholesterol on most food labels. Cholesterol is not always bad in that humans do need a certain amount of it, and the body naturally produces it. However, most people get more than enough cholesterol from the average diet. As a result, many people find that they have problems with high cholesterol as they age. Cholesterol becomes a problem in the body when it begins to create plaque in the arteries. This can result in blood clots and heart problems. Therefore, most health-conscious adults should be cautious about the amount of cholesterol they consume. Foods that tend to be high in cholesterol are animal products – meats, cheeses, and eggs. An item low in cholesterol or cholesterol-free is usually a better choice.
The next piece of information on a nutrition facts panel is sodium content. Basically the elemental form of salt, sodium is another component of nutrition that can contribute to heart and health problems (especially high blood pressure) if consumed in excess. The modern diet is full of sodium because it is often used as a preservative in packaging frozen or pre-prepared foods. A healthy daily amount of sodium for most people is about 2,400 mg.
Carbohydrates are probably the most hotly debated and most commonly misunderstood item on a nutrition facts label, and it’s next on the list. “Carbs” are essential for human energy and proper brain function. They’re at the bottom of the food pyramid, meaning that we should consume more carbs than anything else in our diet. However, consuming more carbohydrates than you need can result not only in weight gain, but in insulin resistance that could lead to type 2 diabetes. Basically, carbs are found in starchy foods such as breads, pasta, rice, cereal, potatoes, and beans, as well as in sweet foods such as fruit, jam, sauce, juice, and desserts.
On the label, you will find “carbohydrates” printed in bold, followed by the types of carbohydrates printed in regular font; usually fiber and sugar. A food can be high in carbs but still healthy if most of those carbs do not come from sugar. Take a bagel for example, which usually contains 45 to 60 grams of carbohydrate, but only about 10 to 20 grams of sugar. As mentioned before, carbohydrates provide the body with the energy it needs to keep working, but sugars are like “empty carbs” that give the body a quick spike of energy, then fade away. Healthy carbs are the hearty ones found in whole grain products.
Another important point is the fiber content. A food high in fiber not only aids in healthy digestion, but also can “cancel out” some of the carbohydrates consumed. Insoluble fiber is not processed in the body, but rather moves right through your system. If you are meticulous about “counting carbs,” you can usually subtract the amount of fiber from the total number of carbohydrates in a food.
A final point about “low-carb” diets: foods that advertise reduced or low carbohydrate content often have increased fat content. On the other hand, “light” or low-fat foods are often higher in carbohydrates than their traditional counterparts. This relationship between fats and carbohydrates is important in the planning of any attempt at weight loss.
The next item on a nutrition facts label is protein. Protein is important to the diet mainly because it aids in building muscle cells. The average person only needs a little protein in their diet to remain healthy, but a person wishing to “tone up” will often add more. Foods usually high in protein are nuts, meats, and eggs. Foods from other groups that contain good amounts of protein will often advertise it on their labels.
Near the bottom of a nutrition facts panel, you will often find a long list of vitamins followed by percentiles. There are many vitamins that are essential to human health, and each one has a different function. To name a few, vitamin D aids in healthy skin, vitamin C helps our immune systems, vitamin K (potassium) contributes to healthy muscles, and calcium is very important in the health of our bones. Many people don’t get the amount of vitamins they need, which can lead to various complications. The percentiles of vitamins on a food label is based on a Percent Daily Value for the average diet, discussed below.
Percent Daily Value
Nearly every item on the nutrition label is followed by a percentile number. This represents the Percent Daily Value that the food provides for that element of the diet. Usually, the very bottom of the nutrition facts panel indicates that the percentages are based on a 2,000 calorie diet. This means that if the label indicates a fat content of 5%, and you are the average person consuming 2,000 calories per day, then one serving of this food provides five percent of the amount of fat you need to consume each day. Remember that the percentiles are only an estimate for the average diet. The information is most helpful when the percentiles are very high, meaning that if a food provides over 20 percent of the daily amount of any one element, then you should be careful of consuming too much.
Outside of the nutrition facts panel, you will usually find a list of ingredients. This can be even more overwhelming, because it often contains a large amount of long and unpronounceable words. Only a chemist or nutritionist could be expected to understand them all, so it’s best to go by a few simple rules when looking at an ingredient list. First, the fewer ingredients, the better. Foods that have been highly processed and preserved will have more chemicals than natural or organic foods, which usually contain just a few recognizable ingredients.
Another easy rule is to avoid the term “partially hydrogenated oil” in an ingredient list, because it is an indicator of the presence of trans fats, discussed above. If you are looking for healthy carbohydrates in starches like bread, bagels, and other baked products, look for the term “whole wheat flour” rather than “enriched,” because this usually indicates that the product did not go through excessive processing that removes the beneficial qualities of grain.
Finally, an ingredient list can be especially helpful for a person with allergies. If you have peanut, lactose, or any other allergies, always check the ingredient list of every product you buy. Even when it seems unlikely, a food may contain a hidden danger that could cause serious health problems for the allergic.
Nutrition Facts Label Truth Conclusion
Food labels do not have to be confusing, frustrating, or overwhelming. Taking just a few extra seconds to glance at the nutrition facts of each item you purchase in the grocery store can improve your health and wellness by leaps and bounds. It’s a good idea to speak to your doctor or a nutritionist about your individual needs when it comes to diet, vitamins, and nutrients. The more informed you are about nutrition and food labels, the easier it will be to shop and eat healthy!