Did you catch the recent news about a study that showed that people who read food labels have a lower body mass index (a measure used to define a person’s height to weight ratio)? We’re not surprised. Not only does the label on your food paint a picture of the food’s healthy benefits (or warn you that it has none), it also puts you in a more empowered frame of mind to make healthful food choices. We read labels like it’s our job…well, it sort of is… and wanted to share our label-reading strategy with all of you.
Step 1: Ingredients: Before you look at anything else, scope out the ingredients. While certain terms on labels can be tricky (16-grain bread might not be whole grain and “natural” means very little), the ingredients rarely lie. Look at the number of ingredients — are there so many it makes your head spin? Might be better to pass on the product, as lots of ingredients usually indicate a more processed food (and more additives). Ingredients seem like something from a chemistry book? Again, maybe better to pass, as this could indicate a food with potentially negative additives. If you’re looking for a whole grain product, make sure the word “whole” is somewhere in the first ingredient. And steer clear of anything with partially hydrogenated oil in the ingredients list (this is the major source of trans fat). If you see sugar (or honey, syrup, high fructose corn syrup, agave, brown rice syrup, or anything ending is “ose”) in the beginning of the ingredient list, chances are, the product has quite a bit of added sugar.
Step 2: Type of food: Some foods might be totally lacking in one or two categories on the food label, while others might be super-charged with certain nutrients. Keep in mind the type of food/which food category and what nutrients it’s naturally highest in. For instance, canned salmon is a high-protein food, so we don’t expect it to deliver fiber (or have whole grains in the ingredients list). We would expect whole grain bread to have whole grains in its ingredients, but we wouldn’t expect it to display a whole lot of protein on its label. Also think about how this food will fit into your meals and snacks and what it might be paired with in order to assess if it can work with your calorie/nutrition goals.
Step 3: # of servings: Before gazing at the Nutrition Facts panel’s many categories, check on the very top first — the number of servings. That is the number of servings that the company divided the food into before running the nutrition analysis — so the stats you see for calories, fat, sodium, sugar, etc. are all for one serving of the product. This is especially tricky for bottled drinks (often more than one serving per bottle) and smaller packages of trail mix and chips (if you eat the whole thing in one sitting, multiply each nutrient category by the number of servings). So, if you have a bottle of iced tea with 50 calories per serving, and the serving size is half the bottle, the entire bottle contains 100 calories. Or, if you buy a bag of chips with 12 servings, but you only get 4 servings from it, multiply each nutrient on the Nutrition Facts panel by 3.
Step 4: Label stats: If you’ve checked the ingredients, set some basic expectations for the type of food you’re looking at, and taken note of the number of servings, it’s time to assess the numbers. Look at the calories, considering your overall daily calorie goals (FYI, we usually recommend 350 for breakfast, 450 for lunch, 500 for dinner, 150 for snacks, and 150 for treats, if you’re looking to lose weight). Check out the sodium, keeping in mind that your total for the day shouldn’t exceed 2300mg (1500mg for those with high blood pressure or diabetes). Scope out the fiber, noting that the daily recommendation is 21-38 grams. Finally note the sugar, and remember that current recs are not to exceed 6 teaspoons (24 grams) and 9 teaspoons (36 grams) of added sugar for women and men respectively. Refer back to the ingredients to estimate how much of the sugar is natural (from things like milk and fruit) versus added (honey, sugar, etc.)
What’s the first thing you look for on a food label? What usually catches your eye?