Many of us know it is prudent to read nutrition labels to see what exactly our packaged foods consist of. Very few of us really know what all those numbers, percentages and descriptions really mean for our health.
Here is a comprehensive guide to deciphering those labels and why it is important to do so:
Serving size: This denotes how many servings the package contains, according to the manufacturer. This number can be very decieving, since the entire contents may be easily consumed in one sitting by yourself, yet the package lists it as 3 servings. The FDA sets the serving sizes. All of the information listed on the label refers to one single serving. If you eat the whole package, you must multiply the calories and fat by the amount listed. For example, a bag of potato chips states one serving as 1 oz. and lists the servings per container as 14. If you can get 14 servings from one bag of chips, congratulations! You have amazing will power. For the rest of us, get out your calculator and start multiplying.
Percentage of Daily Value: This is calculated based on someone who eats 2000 calories per day as their normal diet. For most women, this is more than they need to maintain a healthy weight. For highly active women, and many men, this may not be enough. Take this number with a grain of salt, (something we will discuss later in this post.)
Fats: Recent research points out that eating fat doesn’t make us fat. In fact, we need fat in our diet for optimum wellness. Certain vitamins are fat soluable, meaning they need to dissolve in fat to be carried through the body. They also help us maintain our body temperature, and provide insulation for our organs. That said, there are many different types of fat, and choosing the right type is critical to our health. Saturated fats are found mostly in animal products, and are known to raise cholesterol, and could also increase your risk for type 2 diabetes. Trans fats are mostly made from processing oils using a method called partially hydrogenating. This makes them more shelf stable, but it also makes them artery cloggers. Trans fats are also attributed to an increase in unhealthy LDL cholesterol, and lower the more desirable HDL cholestoral. Most saturated fats are solid at room temperature. Better choices are unsaturated fats, which include many liquid oils, such as olive oil, safflower oil or corn oil. Many fish are also high in heart healthy omega-3 fatty acids. Plant based sources of fat, including nuts and seeds and avocado are also good for providing protection to your heart and lower blood pressure. If the label lists a high level of saturated fats, partially hydrogenated oils, or any trans fats, it is best to put it back on the shelf and explore other choices.
Beware of labels that boast “fat free.” Generally speaking, when the fat is removed, it is replaced by something else, often sugar. Fat free doesn’t equate to calorie free. Just sayin’.
Sodium: Sodium = salt. Pure and simple. It makes our food taste great, but it also raises blood pressure when consumed in high quantities. Our recommended daily consumption of salt is set as less than 2.300 mg. It is suggested that no single food should contain more than 805 mg. per serving. Check the label carefully for how many servings are in the package. Often, there are several, making the facts a bit decieving. High sodium also means highly processed. Most canned or packaged foods have a much higher sodium content than the freshly made counterpart. Look out for canned soups, jarred sauces or lunch meats. They tend to be sodium bombs.
Fiber: When looking at grain based products, such as bread, look for at least 3 grams of fiber per serving. Labels will often describe the fiber as soluable, or insoluable. Sources of soluable fiber include oatmeal, barley and dried beans. This type of fiber can be helpful in lowering cholesterol. Insoluable fiber protects against bowel disease, and is found in whole grains, fruit and vegetables.
Sugars: Sugar can crop up in all kinds of foods which are not associated with being sweet, like crackers, or cereals that market themselves as healthy. It is often listed as glucose, sucrose or fructose, among others. If it ends in “ose,” it is a type of sugar. Sugar substitutes might have the ending “tol,” such as malatol,or sorbitol. These are sugar alcohols and are associated with causing digestive issues. If your artificially sweetened foods send you racing to a restroom, you might want to avoid them in the future.
Protein: Our bodies are made of protein, and it is often referred to as the building blocks of life. We need protein to repair and make new cells. Protein is found in animal products, as well as soy, nuts, and beans among other plant based sources. The rule of thumb, is to eat .45 grams of protein per day, for every pound of body weight. That means a 150 pound person should consume about 68 grams per day.
Total Carbohydrates: This number could come from healthy sources, such as whole grains or even vegetables, or it could come from the “white stuff,”such as processed white flour and sugar. Cross reference this number with the sugar and fiber numbers to get the full picture.
Vitamins and Minerals: This lists the vitamins and minerals that are both naturally occuring, and those that are added. The percentages are often most helpful in determining just how much of these are in any given food. Remember, these are often based on a 2,000 calorie diet. If you only eat 1500 calories per day, these percentages will need to be adjusted accordingly.
Ingredients: This is critical information. All ingredients are required to be listed on the label, in order of quantity. To me, this is the most important information on the label, as it tells me exactly what I am eating. When I began doing my Whole 30 elimination diet, I realized that most packaged foods had lots more in them than one would think. Almond butter for instance, should contain almonds, and possibly salt. Sugar, or additives are uneccessary and can be avoided if you are a savvy shopper. If there is a long list of ingredients on a simple food, it might be one to avoid. If you can’t pronounce some of them, that too is a danger sign that the food might not be very good for you.
Knowing what we are putting into our bodies is key to good health and weight control.
There is a great app from food expert Marion Nestle, called Fooducate, which allows you to scan a food’s barcode and get a letter grade on the healthiness of the product, right there in the grocery aisle. While the foods that don’t contain a barcode or a package are usually the best for us, this is an invaluable tool to help you navigate the vast array of foods available to us.
Photo: Glasshouse Images
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