Deciphering a Nutrition Facts Label
I originally posted this article over two years ago, and decided it was time to revisit and update it for all of my new readers. Enjoy!
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, which is usually grossly underestimated in my opinion...
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. Contrary to popular belief, 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. Eating foods rich in natural saturated fatty acids (coconut products, butter, etc) and monounsaturated fats (olive oil) will help promote overall health through fatty acid balance.
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 as cholesterol makes up every single cell in our bodies! Plus, it's a precursor to hormones that are critical in maintaining an overall healthy balanced body. 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 raw sauerkraut or foods that are cured/fermented with salt.
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, a new food label has been approved and will be implemented over the next year or so on all products that will list which sugars are added to the product. 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. You can read more about protein here and complete/incomplete proteins here.
Last are vitamin and mineral 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.