Understanding & using nutrition labels

by Amy Renee
Understanding & using nutrition labels

The Components of the Nutrition Facts Label

Looking at and understanding nutrition facts labels on food products can help you make better decisions and improve your health. Don’t simply buy the cheapest can of diced tomatoes. You could pay for it with your health later! Here are the main components on nutrition facts labels and what they mean:

The Serving Size

  • This is a standardized measurement based on a 2000 calorie per day diet.
  • It is important that you take into account serving size since you might be consuming two or three servings of a food without even realizing it.
  • Directly below the serving size is the number of servings per package. You need to take this into consideration since you may be consuming 2 or 3 times as many calories as the package says it contains on the label if there are 2 or 3 servings in that package.
  • Another thing to consider is if you are mixing this food with another food as you would in a recipe. If you are combining several foods into one meal then it is possible you require less than an entire serving size of each food to make an entire recipe. Just because a serving size is listed does not mean you NEED to eat that entire amount. Take nuts for example. Most raw (or lightly dry roasted), unsalted nuts are a healthy addition to a plant-based diet. If you are in between meals and in a pinch you could have an ounce of nuts (that’s about 28 almonds). But if you are adding the almonds to your morning oatmeal and also having almond milk and banana with it, you should cut your portion size down to about 10 to 12 grams (about 10 to 12 almonds).

Calories (and calories from fat)

  • Calories enable us to measure how much energy we get from food for our bodies.
  • Most Americans consume more calories than their bodies require.
  • Most Americans underestimate the amount of calories in the food they consume. As a general guide one could identify 40 calories as being a low amount of energy, 100 calories as being moderate, and 400 calories as being high. As I discuss below and in several other posts however, a calorie of one type of food is not the same as another. For example, 400 calories of kale would affect the body much differently than 400 calories ice cream!
  • Calories from fat is exactly that – the amount of calories that are from fat. For example, if a food product has 400 total calories per serving and 9 grams of fat then 91 calories would come from fat. This number is found by multiplying the amount of fat grams (in this case 9) by 9 since there are 9 calories in each gram of fat. If you divide 81 calories by the total calories in the serving (400 calories) you would see that this food is basically 20% fat.

The Nutrients

  • Total Fat: This first lists the total fat in the serving. Underneath total fat is saturated and trans fats (unhealthy fats) are listed. Some products also list polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats, but these fats (healthy fats) are not required to be listed on the label by the FDA.
  • Cholesterol: Most plant-based foods don’t have cholesterol in them, but this is where it is listed on the label. Current recommendations suggest not consuming over 300 mg cholesterol per day, but evidence about dietary cholesterol and it’s effects on health are mixed. If you are consuming a whole-foods, plant-based diet you really don’t need to worry since your intake will be low anyway.
  • Sodium: Sodium is a major contributor to poor health and should be minimized. As with cholesterol, if you consume a whole-foods, plant-based diet you will automatically consume a low-sodium diet. Not only that, but you will have high intakes of potassium which naturally lower the sodium content in your body. Current recommendations suggest a daily intake of less than 2400 mg of sodium per day unless you are an endurance athlete. If you look at the labels of many processed foods you can see how you could easily consume way too much sodium!
  • Total Carbohydrate: The total amount of carbohydrate per serving is first listed. Then dietary fiber is listed. Sugar is not required to be listed by the FDA but is listed on most nutrition facts labels. Some labels also include the different types of fiber (soluble and insoluble), but that is not required buy the FDA either..
  • Protein: The final macronutrient listed on the label is protein.
  • Vitamins A & C & minerals Calcium & Iron: I’m not exactly sure why the committee that came up with the current nutrition facts label decided to choose to include these four micronutrients, but the percentages listed on the label are based on a 2000 calorie diet and based on the Daily Value Recommendations created by our government. If you consume a whole-foods, plant-based diet you meet these recommendations without any problems.

% Daily Values

  • These values are based on a 2000 calorie per day diet.
  • They are a guide as to what you should be looking for on the nutrition facts label when considering your daily intakes.
  • The Dietary Reference Intakes were developed by a committee from the U.S. Government.

The Ingredients List

This is in my opinion the most important part of the entire nutrition label. I’m always telling people, “look at the ingredients list!” Is the list short or is it long? Can you pronounce all of the words? Is sugar the first ingredient?

So here are the main things you need to know about the ingredients list:

Food Allergens

  • If you or anyone you prepare food for has any food allergies you need to look at the ingredients list to ensure the food product does not contain them. You’d be surprised at what manufacturers stick in their products, so don’t just assume a can of tomatoes for example will simply contain tomatoes.

Food Additives & Sweeteners

  • Additives are often added to foods to for several reasons such as to maintain their freshness, improve taste, texture, and appearance, or add back nutritional components that were stripped from the food during processing.
  • Additives include preservatives, spices, natural and artificial flavors, sweeteners, food colorings, emulsifiers, stabilizers, and thickeners, leavening agents, and even agents that help control the acidity or alkalinity of a food.
  • Some of these additive such as MSG (monosodium glutamate – a flavoring used in a lot of packaged foods) have been given GRAS (generally recognized as safe) status by the FDA even though they make several people very ill.
  • Some food coloring additives have been found to increase hyperactivity in kids, aggravate asthma symptoms, and even cause cancer.

And Americans think of processed foods as “real” foods??? 

The Way Ingredients Are Listed On The Label

  • The ingredients are listed in order by predominance. So if sugar is the first thing listed in the ingredients list that means that by volume that product mostly consists of sugar!

Ingredients To Look Out For

  • Food allergens: Some allergens such as dairy can be particularly difficult to identify with the several different names including ammonium caseinate, whey hydrolysate, and lactitol monohydrate. And these are only a few! For a list of several food allergens found in ingredient labels check out this great resource: Food Allergens
  • High fructose corn syrup or corn syrup is a form of sugar made from corn. Manufacturers call it “natural” because it’s made from corn, but this product is highly processed and evidence is piling up on the adverse effects it has to health. It has been the sweetener of choice by manufacturers because it is easy to add to foods and is cheaper than real sugar.
  • Other sugars: sugar, brown sugar, dextrose, honey, lactose, corn syrup and high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), molasses, maple syrup, sucrose, raw sugar, maltose, malt sugar, brown rice syrup, agave nectar, cane syrup, evaporated cane juice, glucose, liquid fructose, sugar cane, sugar cane juice, fruit nectar, and more.
  • Fake sweeteners such as aspartame, saccharin, sucralose, and neotame are chemically manufactured products used to sweeten foods. They are not natural foods and the body doesn’t recognize them, thus they cause side effects such as headaches, reduced mental performance, and have even caused cancer and other disease in animal studies.
  • Monosodium glutamate (MSG) is a flavoring added to foods. It is added to many spice mixes and processed foods such as soup starters. Some people are affected more severely than others with side effects ranging from headaches to extreme illness that resembles food poisoning.
  • Sodium nitrite is a preservative found in processed meats such as deli meats and sausage. It has been strongly linked to gastric cancer in research.
  • Hydrogenated oil or partially hydrogenated oil is found in several foods such as nut butters, margarines, frozen foods, and more. Manufacturers add hydrogen to oils to stabilize them making them last longer. The problem is that the hydrogenation process causes the fatty acids to turn into “trans fats” or trans fatty acids which are the most unhealthy fats you could eat! They lower your HDL (good) cholesterol and raise your LDL (bad) cholesterol.

What mistakes to avoid when reading labels?

First let’s start with the obvious ones. PAY ATTENTION TO SERVING SIZES AND THE NUMBER OF SERVINGS PER CONTAINER! This is so important. It might be so obvious to some of you, but many people buy packaged foods and simply look at the calories, fat, sugar, etc. without considering the fact that they might need to double or even triple these numbers according to how many servings are in the package they are purchasing. Take a small package of nuts for example. Although nuts are healthy (unsalted, raw nuts – not the highly salted, roasted ones with added oils – usually hydrogenated that are usually the type found packaged) they are energy dense (high in calories) so you should only eat a small amount of them at a time. The small packages you find in airports and convenience stores usually have 2 or 3 servings and at around 160 calories per serving your looking at anywhere from 320 to 480 calories you could consume in a flash! That’s a huge plant-based meal’s worth of calories!

Second, notice that vitamins A and C and the minerals calcium and iron are listed on the label. That’s great and all, but what about the other vitamins and minerals? What about the many ultra valuable phytonutrients that are in so many fruits and vegetables? It’s fine if you want to pay attention to your intake of the vitamins and minerals listed on nutrition labels, but just keep in mind that you need a vast array of micronutrients to achieve optimal health. Not only that, but it is important that you get these micronutrients through foods. Research shows that the components found in whole foods work together in a synergistic way to help combat disease. When you isolate vitamins and minerals and take them in supplement form you just don’t get the same health benefits as you do from whole foods. But that’s an entire other post so I’ll save that for later. Just keep in mind that a whole-food, plant-based lifestyle will ensure you get all the beneficial micronutrients you need to help prevent and possibly reverse chronic disease.

Finally, and maybe most importantly DO NOT GET CAUGHT UP WITH THE NUMBERS!!! I did this for years and rode the weight-gain-weight-loss roller coaster the entire time while feeling totally stressed out and paranoid about everything I ate the entire time. The old “calories in equals calories out” adage is long outdated and for good reason. Science has proven it to be false. As you’ve probably heard many times every gram of fat isn’t the same. There are several types of fat and they work differently in the body. Even though sugar might not be listed on the nutrition label differently like the different kinds of fats are, the sugars from different sources act VERY differently in the body. Sugars from plant-based foods are much different than those from processed foods. I used to avoid sugar like the plague. Even sugar in fruit and vegetables. I used to think bananas and peas were evil. Now I eat them all the time. In fact, if you look at my average dietary intakes of daily macronutrients now compared to those from ten years ago you’ll see that my total sugar intake has increased by an ENORMOUS amount. So why do I weigh 15 pounds less and not struggle with my weight at all anymore? Because they come from plants!

References

  1. Ingredients, packaging, and labeling. U.S. Food & Drug Administration. U.S. Department of Health & Human Services. http://www.fda.gov/Food/IngredientsPackagingLabeling/default.htm. Updated on March 24, 2014. Accessed on April 27, 2014.
  2. Overview of Food Ingredients, Additives & Colors. U.S. Food & Drug Administration. U.S. Department of Health & Human Services. With the International Food Information Council (IFIC). http://www.fda.gov/Food/IngredientsPackagingLabeling/FoodAdditivesIngredients/ucm094211.htm. Updated on March 13, 2013. Accessed on April 27, 2014.
  3. Downs, M. The truth about 7 common food additives. Web MD. webmd.com. http://www.webmd.com/diet/features/the-truth-about-seven-common-food-additives. Updated on December 17, 2008. Accessed on April 27, 2014.
  4. Food allergy resources: food allergens. Kids with food allergies. kidswithfoodallergies.org.http://www.kidswithfoodallergies.org/resourcetopic.php?topic=food-allergens. Updated January 30, 2011. Accessed on April 27, 2014.
  5. What are added sugars? U.S. Department of Agriculture. ChooseMyPlate.gov. http://www.choosemyplate.gov/weight-management-calories/calories/added-sugars.html. Accessed on April 27, 2014.

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