I’ve always been conscious about what I eat, but about ten years ago I really started to focus on understanding nutrition. Over the years, I’ve noticed that many people eat foods without knowing much about ingredients or where they come from. For instance, do you really know what the difference is between saturated fat and unsaturated fat? What does trans fat mean and why are we told not to eat it? Well kudos to you if you are reading this, because that means that you’re interested in understanding food labels more clearly! In an effort to make it a bit easier and understandable, I’ve compiled some information that I hope you will find helpful.
Below I discuss how to read and understand the most obvious wording on the label – the “Nutrition Facts” section. I also focus on seven categories that are very important to understand when reading a food label; sugar, carbohydrates, fat, cholesterol, sodium, protein, and fiber.
First, the rules of nutrition labeling
There are fourteen nutrient contents that the FDA/USDA require manufacturers to list, and these are usually located under the heading of “Nutrition Facts” on food packaging.
These fourteen sections are –
- Amount Per Serving
- Percent Daily Value
- Vitamin A
- Vitamin C
Understanding Calories, Percent Daily Value, and Serving Size
The calories section basically tells you the total calories that are in 1 serving of the food or drink you’re consuming. There’s a lot of science behind how calories and energy usage are calculated, but the general idea is that your body burns calories to supply energy. Therefore, if you’re consuming more calories than your body needs, this can lead to weight gain.
Percent Daily Value
Percent Daily Value (DV) will tell you what the percentage of each nutrient is in a single serving. This number is always calculated in terms of the daily recommended amount. So say you want to eat less of something, such as sodium or saturated fat, you should choose foods that have a lower % daily value of sodium or saturated fat. On the contrary, if you want to eat more of a nutrient, such as protein or fiber, look for a label with a higher % daily value of protein or fiber.
This basically tells you the size of a single serving and how many total servings are in the package/container. It’s important to keep in mind that most of the time there is more than one serving in a package. So if a bag of chips says 100 calories per serving and there are 2 servings in the bag, you are getting 200 calories in total if you eat the whole bag of chips.
Easy enough, right? Okay, let’s breakdown individual nutrients a little more…
SUGAR AND CARBOHYDRATES
If you’re conscious of your weight or have been on a diet, the main – and possibly only – category that you look at on a label is “fat,” but the word is misleading. It is a common misconception that eating a lot of fat = a lot of fat stored in the body. I won’t go too far into this topic right now, but trust me when I say that it is not only fat that equals fat!
So what else turns into fat? The sweet stuff.
One main culprit for creating adipose (the storage form of fat in our body) is actually SUGAR. And guess what? Carbohydrates are also SUGAR. So you already know what I’m going to say next – If you want to watch your weight (and your overall health), what else should you focus on in a label? That’s right, carbohydrates and sugar!
Now there’s a bit more to this concept, because technically if you’re a very active person your body uses a good amount of your sugar intake for energy, which leads to less available sugar for storage. However, if you’re consuming more sugar than your body needs for energy, the excess is free to be used for adipose deposition, aka fat storage.
If you’re concerned with weight gain, diabetes, or overall health in general, watching your sugar and carbohydrate intake should be a priority. The American Heart Association recommends that men eat less than 37.5 grams (9 teaspoons), and women eat less than 25 grams (6 teaspoons) per day. Once you start to get into the habit of checking labels you will see how easy it can be to reach these numbers! They are helpful in providing a general guide, but I actually try to limit my sugar to even less than that, and I try to make sure that my sugar and carbohydrates mainly come from fruit, rather than things like bread or candy! Bottom line – Always check the sugar and carbohydrate labeling and limit your daily intake.
Sodium, sodium chloride, potassium sorbate; These are all different words that are used to describe the same thing: Salt.
Salt is a great preservative that helps to provide a longer shelf life, so it makes sense that it’s found in most processed foods. While our bodies do need salt, high levels can be destructive and lead to high blood pressure, stroke, or even osteoporosis.
When checking food labels, the sodium content is definitely something that you should look at. The American Heart Association recommends a salt consumption amount of less than 1,500 mg per day, which is only 0.75 teaspoons. If you check the labels on most soups, chips, or other processed foods, you will quickly realize how easy it is to reach that number and even exceed it in one day. Buying salt free foods and cooking without salt are two great ways to cut back on your sodium intake, but I know there are some salt lovers who can’t give it up that easily. 🙂 Please do yourself a favor and make sure you’re keeping a watch on your sodium intake, though.
Ah, fat – we need it so much, but it has gotten such a bad rap! Fat is important for many things in the body. It’s vital for energy, structure and integrity of our cell membranes, and even for helping our bodies properly absorb vitamins and minerals. When it comes to fats, there are some basic rules to know and basic things to look at on food labeling, which I’ll go into a little bit..
Good fat VS Bad fat
You’ve probably heard of good fats and bad fats, but do you know what the difference is?
All fats have a very similar structure, consisting of long carbon chains with hydrogen atoms bonded to them. Basically, the main difference that separates saturated and unsaturated fats from one another is the amount of double bonds connecting the carbons.
For years, it was always believed that unsaturated fats are “good,” whereas saturated fats are “bad.” However, recent studies have found that saturated fats may not be as bad as once believed (2), so a moderate intake of saturated fats may be fine. Based on what I’ve learned through my studies in molecular biology, I agree with this finding, and I will occasionally eat saturated fats myself. It’s important to keep most of your fat consumption to things that contain mostly unsaturated fats, though, like nuts, avocados, and olive oil. Some foods that contain mostly saturated fats are cheese, butter, and meat. The American Heart Association recommends that you try to eat no more than 11-13 grams of saturated fat per day.
One Thing To Avoid At All Costs – Trans Fat!
This is the true “bad” fat that you should always – always – avoid. Trans fat is basically unsaturated fat this is put through a chemical “hydrogenation” process to make it more saturated. Food manufacturers will often put “partially hydrogenated” on the labeling, which is an indicator that the food contains trans fat. The food industry now knows how bad trans fat is for us, so many food companies are no longer using trans fat. This is why you will often see labeling like “No Trans Fat” or “Trans Fat Free.” Unfortunately, many fast food restaurants and certain food manufacturers do still continue to use trans fat, so be sure to AVOID fast food and always check food labeling for trans fat.
Why Is Trans Fat So Bad?
Trans fat may be a main culprit for clogged arteries. According to recent studies, it has been found that trans fats prevent the synthesis of prostacyclin (1). Prostacyclin is a lipid (aka a fat) that is necessary to keep your blood flowing. Blood clots can begin to form if your arteries aren’t producing prostacyclin, leading to heart disease and many other cardiovascular problems. This is just one example of the dangers of trans fat, but if you’re interested to read more about trans fat research I would recommend you check out Pubmed.com. Be sure to always check the label for trans fat; if the percentage is higher than 0, skip it!
Cholesterol is usually thought of as a bad thing, but it’s actually very important for keeping our bodies functioning properly. A couple examples of these functions are maintaining cell membrane integrity and producing hormones.
We get cholesterol from two sources – What our body produces and what we get in our diet. There are lots of articles and studies that discuss LDL (low density lipoproteins) and HDL (high density lipoproteins), which are basically cholesterol transporters that transport cholesterol throughout the body. There is an ongoing debate about whether or not LDLs are “bad” and HDLs are “good.” I’m not really going to go into that topic right now, but I will discuss one of the problems with cholesterol, which is that your body doesn’t break it down and also needs to have a very specific amount for everything to function at it’s best. So when we get too much from our diet, it’s possible that these excess levels of cholesterol can build up and lead to complications such as hardening of the arteries, heart disease, and stroke. Exercise and proper diet control are very important in preventing problems associated with too much cholesterol.
It’s generally suggested that you try to eat less than 300 mg of cholesterol per day, but people with heart problems or other issues will need to eat even less. Obviously this varies from person to person, but checking labels and eating only small amounts of cholesterol is a good rule to follow, especially since our bodies will typically make all of the cholesterol that it needs.
After water, protein is the most abundant substance in the body. Proteins are responsible for cell structure and function, cell signaling, tissue repair and growth, brain function, and so much more. If you’re vegetarian or vegan you’re probably already in the habit of checking protein content on food labels. If you’re a meat eater then chances are you get an adequate amount of protein and don’t care much about protein content labeling unless you’re trying to gain muscle. There aren’t any specifics to “watch out for” when it comes to food labeling and protein, but the general suggested amount to aim for per day is 0.5-0.7 grams of protein per pound of body weight. This recommended daily value can vary a lot depending on your lifestyle and activity level, so you need to adjust your protein intake accordingly when weight training, running, or doing anything strenuous.
So, what’s fiber? Digestive fiber is technically something that our bodies can’t digest. An example is cellulose, which is basically a polysaccharide (a sugar) that our bodies are unable to breakdown. It’s derived from plants and is a main source of fiber for humans. So when we eat plants and vegetables, which are made up of cellulose and other indigestible components, these fibers help to slow down our digestive tracts and allow us to absorb more nutrients. They also help to “clean” our colon as they move through in their undigested form.
There are two types of fiber – soluble and insoluble. Our bodies need both types, and many fruits, vegetables, and grains contain both soluble and insoluble fiber.
Good Sources of Soluble Fiber-
- Oats (oatmeal)
- Citrus fruits
Good Sources of Insoluble Fiber –
- Brown Rice
- Brussel Sprouts
A Final Summary
In general, when reading the nutrition facts portion of a label, here is what you should be focusing on..
What to limit
- Trans fat
- Saturated fat
What to get more/enough of
- Unsaturated Fat
Please keep in mind that this is just a general guide with information on what I pay the most attention to when reading nutrition labels. These tips are not meant to be used as medical advice – Please discuss your diet requirements and concerns with your doctor. Everyone’s health and diet needs are different, but these are good general rules to go by if you’re trying to be more conscious about your nutrient intake.
I hope you found this article helpful! I love to talk about health and nutrition, so feel free to reach out with questions or comments. 🙂
1 – http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24228623
2 – http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20071648