There are two parts to food labels: the nutrition facts label, followed by the ingredient list. Before I even look at the nutrition facts, I first inspect the ingredients. It is more important to know where your calories, carbs, fat, etc. are coming from than just the numbers.
Decoding The Ingredient List:
Foods that contain more than one ingredient must have an ingredient list. Ingredients are listed in descending order by weight, those in the largest amount are listed first. As a rule of thumb, I usually tell people to avoid products with excessively long ingredient lists (8+). If there are ingredients you can’t pronounce, it is usually a warning sign. Exceptions to this rule would be whole food sources like quinoa (KEEN-WAH), and chia (CHEE-UH). Also avoid products with artificial sweeteners such as sucralose, aspartame, and acesulfame potassium. While the zero-calorie and “no sugar-added” statements that come from foods with artificial sweeteners seem appealing, research shows there is a link to increased weight gain, appetite, and increased risk of type 2 diabetes. Probably not ideal for someone wanting a zero-calorie product. These artificial sweeteners are up to 700 times sweeter than natural sugar, which can wreck havoc on your taste buds.
Did you know there are over 60 synonyms for added sugar?! 60!! So if you don’t see the word “sugar”, don’t assume it’s not in there. Here’s a full list. Added sugar can be in items you probably wouldn’t think of – marinara, ketchup, salad dressings. Often times many foods perceived as being “healthy” such as yogurt, granola, whole grains cereals, or dried fruit can still be very high in added sugar. Food manufacturers will try using different types of sugar in their products like “organic cane sugar” and “evaporated cane juice” but don’t be fooled, these are all metabolized the same way. It’s still sugar. Instead of completely trying to eliminate any and all added sugar from your diet, try consuming overall less processed foods. Instead, aim to eat foods that contain fewer grams of added sugar than fiber or protein. Get your sugar fix from sugars found naturally in whole foods like dairy (lactose), fruit and vegetables. Next time you read a food label, look how many grams of sugar it contains. 1 tsp of sugar = 4 grams. General recommendations for women are < 6 tsp (25 grams) added sugar per day; men < 9 tsp (38 grams); children < 3-6 tsp (12-25 grams).
Eating the right Fats:
The ingredient list is extremely important to see where the fat in your food is coming from. This is because the FDA allows products to advertise as being “0 grams trans fat”, even if they contain up to 0.5 grams of trans fat to be in a product per serving. Trans fat is artificially made by partially hydrogenating fat. The main reason it’s used is the extend shelf life, so you’ll find this in processed, packaged foods like cookies, candy pies, crackers, etc. How do you know if a product really is free of trans fat? Search for the words “partially hydrogenated oils” on food labels. This is code word for trans fat. Why are these fats so bad? They’re shown to increase unhealthy LDL (“bad”) cholesterol while actually lowering your HDL (“good”) cholesterol, and have been linked to cancer. Look instead for whole fat sources, such as nuts and seeds as the main source of fat. I discuss this in more detail in my articles here on energy bars and nut butters.
To reduce your risk of heart disease, use food labels to make sure you are selecting foods low in saturated fat and cholesterol. Or really, just make sure you aren’t eating processed animal products - the main culprit of both. Look for foods higher in monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats instead.
Just like with sugars and fats, it’s important to see where your fiber is coming from in foods. If you have a product that boasts “high in fiber”, read the ingredient list. Is the fiber coming from a natural source such as dates, prunes, or whole grains? Or is it from a cheap, synthetic, highly processed form, such as the kind found in diet/protein bars such as Quest nutrition? This type of fiber, along with the artificial sweeteners such as sucralose (Splenda) used in their bars is why I don’t recommend consuming them. I especially don’t recommend these for athletes or highly active individuals, as they are likely to cause GI distress during exercise. If you’re consuming them for the protein and convenience, there are much better foods for that! Again, if you’re searching for healthier “energy bar” options, read my blog on the topic here. In order for a food to list “high fiber” on it’s label, the product must have at least 5 grams of fiber per serving. The recommended intake of fiber per day is 25-35 grams. Foods that are high in fiber include whole grains, beans, fruits, and vegetables.
Ingredients to completely avoid:
I receive at least a dozen photos of food products each day, asking if it’s an “okay” product. Here are a few ingredients I would steer clear from if listed on a food label.
Artificial preservatives (such as BHA & BHT), artificial food dyes, artificial sweeteners (sucralose, aspartame, acesulfame potassium), partially hydrogenated oil, high fructose corn syrup, monosodium glutamate (MSG), sodium nitrates/nitrites
Decoding The Nutrition Facts Label:
The first step is to check the serving size. 150 calories may not seem like much at all, right? Now look and see that it’s only for 10 chips. And you sit down with the entire bag. It’s safe to say you’re probably going to end up eating more than 150 calories.
In general, daily sodium consumption should be limited to no more than 2300 mg. This varies quite a bit for athletes, and even more variability occurs depending on the sport. If you’re someone who struggles with consuming too much sodium, here are some numbers to look for:
Low-sodium food: <140 mg per serving
Moderate-sodium food: <400 mg per serving
High-sodium food: >400 mg per serving
I dig into whole grains in more detail in my blog on bread here, but just talking about the numbers, here’s a few things to consider. By the Carbohydrate Exchange System (utilized in diabetes education), 15 grams of carbs = 1 serving. Knowing that one serving is 15 grams, you’ll be able to estimate how many total servings of carbs you are actually eating. Here’s an example. A slice of bread is usually right around 12-15 grams. However, a bagel can be upwards of 60+ grams. This means in one bagel you are actually eating the equivalent of four slices of bread, or four servings of carbs. Knowing these types of numbers is so important not only for individuals trying to control their blood sugar levels or manage their weight, but also for endurance athletes to ensure proper fueling. Another tip is to look for at least 3 grams of fiber per 100 calories, and for the words “whole” rather than “multi”, “white”, or “enriched”.
If a food claims to be high in protein, it must have 10 grams or more per serving. A good source must be 5 grams or more per serving.
“Good Source” vs. “Excellent Source”:
You will see these words to describe micronutrients, primarily Vitamin A, C, Calcium and Iron which are present on all nutrition facts labels. If a food contains 10-19% of the daily value of a nutrient, it is considered to be a “good source”. If it contains 20% or more, it’s considered an “excellent source”.
A final note - be cautious of foods that boast being a new “fat free” version or “sugar free” version, as typically when one of these components is removed, the other is increased. Sugar-free versions often have those artificial sweeteners I talked about, along with additional fat. Fat-free versions typically have higher sugar to help boost the flavor, along with food additives such as emulsifiers to try to replicate the fat. Bottom line, choose real food and you won’t have to worry about these issues!