The food label can be a confusing thing. However, looking at the nutrition facts and the ingredients can tell you a lot about a food.
The first thing under “Nutrition Facts” is the serving size. This is one of the most important things to notice. If you are not looking at this, the rest of the information is useless. Compare what you actually eat to the stated serving size. If you are eating more, more you will need to multiply the calories, fat, protein, carbohydrates and so on. If you are eating less, you will need to divide everything. For example, this label reads the serving size is 1 cup. If you eat 2 cups you would multiply everything by 2. If you eat ½ cup, you would divide everything by two. Some serving sizes can be really small. When you look at the calories, protein, fat, sodium… it may seem like a fine choice. But, if you look at the serving size and multiply to get the amount you are actually eating, you may be shocked.
Servings Per Container
This tells you how many servings are in the container/box/jar. In this case, if you were to eat the whole container of broth you would have consumed 4, or 4 cups. To figure out how many calories, fat, protein and other nutrients you would consume multiply by 4!
This is the number of calories in 1 serving of the food. When trying to lose, gain, or maintain weight the number of calories you are consuming is important. However, choosing calories that will nourish your body and listening to your body’s hunger are even more important for success.
Calories from Fat
This tells you the number of calories you will get from fat in one serving. These calories are already included in the calories; you do NOT need to add this number to calories. It is really not that important to look at this number. The fat section will tell you more about the health of the food.
Total fat is the TOTAL amount of fat in one serving of the food or beverage. Typically you will see saturated fat and/or other fats listed below. Those fats are included in the total fat. Fat has 9 Calories per gram, unlike protein or carbohydrates which have 4 Calories per gram. This explains why foods that are higher in fat are also higher in calories.
Saturated fat often gets a bad rap, but it is not a fat to avoid completely. Try to keep your saturated fat intake to about than 1/3 of your total fat intake.
This is the one fat to try to avoid. It is made by adding hydrogen to vegetable oil in a process known as hydrogenation. Even if you look at the label and you see 0 grams next to trans fat, your food or beverage may still have this unhealthy fat. According to labeling laws, if a food has less than 0.5 grams of a fat in one serving, it can be listed as 0 grams. This may not seem like a big deal, but if you eat four servings you could be consuming one to two grams of trans fat. Looking at the ingredient list is a good way to see if they are telling the truth. If you see the words partially hydrogenated, hydrogenated, margarine, or shortening, it contains trans fat.
Carbohydrates, otherwise known as carbs, give your body energy. If you are not an active person you do not need as many carbs as an athlete. It is important to choose carbs that will fuel your body, not cause it to crash. Foods that are high in fiber and low in sugar are good choices. Oatmeal, fruits, veggies, and brown rice are a few choices.
This is a number that you would like to see high! The average healthy female should aim for 25 grams of fiber per day, while the average male should consume 38 grams per day. This is based on an Institute of Medicine equation that calculates 14 grams of fiber for every 1,000 calories.
When you are increasing your fiber intake, do not make a huge increase all at once. If you drastically increase your fiber intake in one day your body will most likely hate you. You will probably experience bloating and gas. Try adding a little fiber one day and little more the next. Drinking plenty of water is also important when increasing your fiber! Oatmeal, fruits, and veggies are a few examples of foods that contain fiber.
Contrary to fiber, you want the grams of sugar to be low number. Foods that are high in sugar and low in fiber will not keep you full very long and will have a bad effect on your blood sugar levels. Foods like white bread, candy, ice cream, and sodas great examples of sugary foods and beverages. Other names that basically mean sugar include agave nectar, barley malt, beet sugar, blackstrap molasses, brown rice syrup, brown sugar, buttered sugar, cane juice crystals, cane juice, cane sugar, caramel, carob syrup, caster sugar, coconut sugar, corn sweetener, corn syrup, corn syrup solids, crystalline fructose, date sugar, demara sugar, dextran, diastatic malt, diatase, ethyl maltol, evaporated cane juice, fructose, fruit juice concentrates, galactose, glucose, golden sugar, golden syrup, high fructose corn syrup, honey, invert syrup, lactose, malt syrup, maltodextrin, maltose, maple syrup, molasses syrup, muscovado sugar, organic raw sugar, oat syrup, panela, panocha, confectioner’s sugar, rice bran syrup, rice syrup, sorghum, sorghum sugar, sucrose, sugar, syrup, treacle, tapioca syrup, turbinado sugar, and yellow sugar. Yikes that is a lot of names!
Your body needs some sodium to function, but too much is not good. If you have high blood pressure, watching your sodium intake is especially important. The average healthy person should try to limit their sodium intake to less than 2300mg per day. Soups, frozen dinners, deli meats, and canned veggies are foods that are high in sodium. If an item says reduced sodium, that means the sodium content has been reduced by 25% of its original version. It may still be high in sodium though. Also, if a label says low sodium, it must have less than 140mg per serving. Remember to check the serving size and compare it to what you are actually eating.
Protein in your diet is a definite must. It helps to build muscle and is important to cell and organ function. It will also keep you fuller longer than just eating carbohydrates by themselves. Grass fed chicken, beef, and turkey, fish, nuts, nut butters, pastured/cage free eggs, quinoa, bone broth, Greek yogurt, and beans are all good sources of protein.
% Daily Value
If you look to the right of the grams listed, you will see percentages listed. This is the % Daily Value. This is the percent of a person’s daily needs they will consume from one serving if they are on a “2,000 calorie diet.” However, a majority of people do not need 2,000 calories a day. Some people will need more, while others will need less. Because of this, I typically focus more on the grams.
The ingredients are listed in order of predominance by weight. This means the food that is in there the most is listed first.
This is the place to catch any tricks food companies may try to play. As I mentioned before, you will be able to tell if there is any trans fat in your food by looking here. Also, if you want to make sure you are eating bread that is 100% whole grain, look to see if the ingredients following whole wheat are not enriched, bleached flour.
There is another thing to look out for here. If you are looking to make sure sugar is not one of the first few ingredients on the list, good for you! However, even though sugar might not be in the top three ingredients, a food or beverage can still have more sugar than you would think. Often times multiple sweeteners are used. Here’s the issue. If sugar is the only sweetener used in a product, it might be listed as the first or second ingredient. However, by using sugar, high fructose corn syrup, and molasses. Sugar is now listed as the fifth ingredient and high fructose corn syrup and molasses, the sixth and seventh.
It is also important to look for other ingredients to avoid. Here are some to get you started artificial colors (yellow #5,red #40, blue #2), BHT (Butylated Hydroxytoluene), polysorbate 60, MSG, (Monosodium Glutamate), carrageenan, disodium inosinate, disodium guanylate, artificial sugar (sucralose, aspartame, acesulfame potassium, saccharin…), artificial flavors, tertiary butylhydroquinone (TBHQ), and BVO (Brominated Vegetable Oil).
Hopefully, this has answered some questions about what the food label is actually telling you. It can be a great tool to help you make healthy food choices.