How to read nutrition labels

Reading Nutrition Labels

Today I am going to give you some quick tips on reading nutrition labels. While far from being perfect, the nutrition label is a great way to begin educating yourself about the foods you eat.  I believe it is best to get the majority of our meals from minimally processed foods like lean meats and fresh produce. There are however some items you will buy that have a label on them. Knowing a few guidelines will help you to make better informed choices when buying these items. Most people are familiar with the Nutrition Facts section of the label but it does not tell the whole story of the food. It is important to look at the Ingredients list as well.

Why you need to read the ingredient list

  • The numbers tell you nothing about the quality of what you are actually eating. Just because a food is low in calories, fat or carbs does not make it healthy.
  • Food manufacturers can manipulate the values on the label by removing fat from the foods and thus reducing overall calorie content. The problem with this is that the fat serves to add flavor to the food and helps to slow the release of sugar into our bloodstream during digestion. Many experts believe that the “low fat diet” craze of the past few decades is one of the reasons we are seeing an epidemic of obesity & diabetes today. When fat is removed from foods, sugar is often added to give it flavor (many flavored yogurts are a good example of this). This creates a lower calorie, but higher sugar version of the food that sends our blood sugar levels soaring. These foods also tend to not be very satisfying, so we eat more then we should. My favorite example is the 100 calorie pack snacks. Do these actually fill anyone up? Or do they just make you want another bag?
  • To piggy back off of the previous point, food manufactures have also started using sugar alcohols or artificial sweeteners in place of the sugar to further manipulate the calorie and carbohydrate content. It is best to minimize your exposure or avoid these completely. Artificial sweeteners are controversial and the long term effects on our health are not entirely known.

3 things to look for & avoid on an ingredient list:

  1. Hydrogenated oils, also known as trans fatty acids. Trans fats are known to have a negative impact on our overall health by increasing our risk for heart disease and decreasing our body’s metabolism.  They are found in commercially baked goods (crackers, cookies, cakes), fried foods (doughnuts and french fries) and margarine. Read all ingredient labels for the words “partially hydrogenated.” Note: even if it says “No trans fat”‘ on the label, you still need to read the ingredients.
  2. Added sugars. They come in a variety of forms and are hidden foods that you would never expect it (like frozen vegetables and mustard). Read the ingredients label for: sucrose, fructose, glucose, maltose, dextrose, maltodexrin, hydrolyzed starch, invert sugar, corn syrup, honey, cane sugar, agave hector, sugar beets, high fructose corn syrup, maple sugar & molasses.
  3. Artificial sweeteners: Saccharin (sweet n low), Aspartame (Equal) & Sucralose (Splenda). Go here for more information on why you should avoid them.

The take away message is this: choose unprocessed foods like fresh produce and meats as often as possible and when buying packaged foods read both the Nutrition Facts and the Ingredients Label to be aware of what you are actually getting.

Credit for the information in this article goes to Essentials of Sport and Exercise Nutrition first edition by John Berardi, PhD & Ryan Andrews, MS, MA, RD and the Nutrition Almanac 6th edition by John D. Kirshmann and Nutrition Search, Inc.

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