Nutrition Labels for the Rest of Us
Hopefully this post is something you will never really need. If you focus on eating wholesome whole foods, there will be no label to read. Real Food is found along the perimeter of most grocery stores. Fresh produce, meats, eggs, and dairy is where almost all of our power foods are found. If you stay away from foods that come in bags, boxes and cans, you will never need this article. That being said, Trader Joe’s is in business because it is hard for many folks to cook all their food from scratch all the time. If this sounds like your lifestyle, we hope this helps you to make sense of the madness that is….the nutrition label!
The Great Serving Size Scam
The first thing you want to look at when checking food labels is the serving size and how many servings per container are listed on the package. Typically, the serving size is listed using a volume measurement (ex: 1 cup). Next to that however, you will typically see a metric conversion in grams (ex: 114g). Directly below, the servings per container will show you the volume of food in the entire package or servings per container. One serving is often a lot less than what we think so pay attention to this information and portion food properly. Measuring utensils are your friend and will help you watch calories like a hawk!
Calories, If You Care
Next is the amount of calories per serving. This ties in to the information above as you want to know how many calories you are consuming per serving. This also gives you a starting point to compare other brands of the same product that may be more or less calorically dense.
Meet the Macros
Following this is the breakdown of your macronutrients. This is where things get good! Keep in mind that all of this information is for ONE serving. On one side you have the amount of the nutrient listed in grams and on the other you have a daily value percentage. The percentage shows you based on a 2,000 calorie allotment per day, how much of that nutrient you are getting in that serving. Got it? So, for example if a serving of food ‘X’ has 2.5 g of fat and across from that you see 4%, this means that 4% of your daily requirement of fat has been met in this one serving based on that 2,000 calorie allotment. This same trend follows all the way down the list. This is where we have to be the most vigilant. People who suffer from hypertension should pay attention to the amount of sodium listed. People who lack enough fiber in their diet should look closely at that. Diabetics should immediately scroll down to the amount of sugars listed and know exactly what’s inside.
And Now the Micros.
Next is the list of vitamins and sometimes minerals. Again keep in mind this is for one serving. The healthier the food you are consuming, the more vitamins and minerals you will see listed. This is a quick and easy way to see how much, if any, nutrients you are getting and may help you to identify possible deficiencies.
Ingredients: The Most Important Part of the Label
When looking at the list of ingredients, be sure to look out for added sugars, preservatives, and other filler ingredients that are sometimes used. A lot of the ingredients you see on food labels are also there to extend the shelf life of that food. Unfortunately, this means that these foods linger around in your system longer than they should. In general, the more ingredients a food product has, the more you want to stay away from it. Real food does not last forever.
Artificial sweeteners and sugar derivatives are used in a lot of low fat foods as well as lower sodium foods to help retain some of the flavor that was lost. Sugar comes in a lot of forms. Aside from the usual sweeteners that we know of such as Splenda, equal and high fructose corn syrup, you have cane juice/evaporated cane juice, anything that ends in an -ose (dextrose, maltose, sucralose, etc.), brown rice syrup, invert sugar, and many more. Also be on the lookout for sugar alcohols. These end in –ol (erythritol, mannitiol, sorbitol, etc.), and are plant derived sources of sugar, but can still cause some gastrointestinal problems for people, as well. Try to stick to natural sweeteners such as honey, un-sulphured black strap molasses and pure stevia leaf powder. Also, look out for ‘natural flavors.’ Typically there is more than one ingredient being used under this guise and manufacturers are not required to list it. Just because something is natural, doesn’t mean it is good for you.
Stabilizer ingredients like guar gum, gum acacia, locust bean gum. and carrageenan can cause some irritation and allergic reactions in some people, as well. If you suffer from any allergies or have gluten intolerance, you should steer clear of any wheat ingredients. These can be the source of a lot of inflammation for people. Wheat and wheat containing products also have a tendency to be enriched. This means that during the processing, all of the natural vitamins and minerals were stripped, and then at the end were sprayed back on in a synthetic form. This messes up the natural process the body has of breaking down food and extracting all the nutrients in order to get the most benefit from the food. Aside from stripping vitamins and nutrients, fiber is also lost.