Deciphering a Nutrition Facts Label
When you turn over a package, you see two things on the back: the nutrition facts label and the ingredient list. Today, we’ll pick apart the nutrition facts, and we’ll save the ingredient list for another day (I don’t want to overwhelm you!).
At the top is the serving size and servings per container. This is important for reading the rest of the label. If the serving size is ½ cup and you eat 1 cup, you need to double all of the information on the rest of the panel. Also listed is the servings per container. This is helpful when the serving size is listed in grams. I’m sorry, I don’t know off the top of my head what 50 grams of a food looks like! Now ½ cup? That I can eyeball. Either way, if the servings are listed in grams and the only information you have is the servings per container, you can simply divide the container/package into the number of servings in the container and you have the serving size.
Next up is the calories per serving. Honestly, this number isn’t too important. People get so hung up on the calories, but think about it – which is better, 100 calories of chips or 100 calories of kale? They are made up of totally different macronutrients and micronutrients, but both have 100 calories. Not all calories are created equal. So yes, a 100 calorie pack of Oreos will have fewer calories than a package of guacamole, but when we look at the macronutrient breakdown of each package, we see that most all of the calories in the Oreos come from sugar and carbohydrates, while the calories in the guacamole come from healthy monounsaturated fat.
Total fat is next, broken down into saturated, polyunsaturated, monounsaturated, and trans fats. They all won’t be on every label; it varies from product to product. Basically, we want to avoid all foods with trans fats and limit foods with high polyunsaturated fats from vegetable oils. Side note – if trans fats are less than .5 grams per serving, they can be listed as 0 grams on the label. However, this .5 grams will add up in the entire package. To figure out for sure whether or not a food has trans fats, you have to go to the ingredient list and look for hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oils. If you see it in the list, do not consume that food. Ever.
Cholesterol is next, and as I’ve discussed previously, this number isn’t to be feared! Our bodies need cholesterol to survive and thrive. You can read more about that subject here.
After cholesterol is sodium. Look for foods that are lower in sodium naturally. Adding real sea salt to real, whole food isn’t a bad thing. Salt in the form of processed foods is where we run into trouble. And remember, that sodium number is per serving, so if you eat more than one serving, that sodium adds up! Aim to keep that number under 200mg, with exceptions for foods like sauerkraut.
Total carbohydrates is next, and this is an important section. I want you to pay close attention to the fiber and sugars sub categories. Foods high in natural fiber (not fake fiber that is added in!) are awesome, as well as foods low in sugars. At this point, there’s not a way to determine how many of the sugars in a food are natural and how many are added, but hopefully that change is coming! When in doubt, look at the ingredients list to discover for yourself if added sugar is in there or not. Look for a comprehensive list in my future post on ingredient lists.
Protein is next on the list, and is a macronutrient that I don’t think we get enough of. Protein from high-quality animal products is so important for muscle growth and our overall wellbeing because it is a complete protein, meaning it contains all the essential amino acids. Protein from other foods like beans or legumes are incomplete, meaning they lack all the necessary proteins.
Okay, last are vitamin percentages. These are fine to look at, just be wary of foods that have extra enriched vitamins added back in (like cereals). Why did these vitamins have to be enriched or added back in? Doesn’t that imply that they were taken out in the first place? That’s a red flag for processing. Not good. Instead, look for foods that are naturally high in the vitamins themselves. For instance, carrots are naturally high in Vitamin A, oranges are naturally high in Vitamin C, and red meat is naturally high in iron.
Alright – we’ve made it through the nutrition facts label. Hopefully you feel much more knowledgeable when you turn over a food package! Stay tuned for a future post that will help you break down the ingredients in packaged foods.