Have you ever wondered how to decipher a food nutrition label? Or did you even know that these nutrition labels exist? Perhaps you do, but you decide to buy that particular item you’re staring at on the shelf in the grocery store because it’s on sale and you think to yourself “a calorie is a calorie and it doesn’t matter what’s truly in this container of food or liquid”.
Well, I’d like to inform you that you should absolutely be paying attention to what’s in your food, because when it comes to your health and well-being, your body and mind are not going to reward you for being frugal and buying the cheapest item on the shelf, or by saving time at the grocery store, buying whatever you like quickly without doing your homework first.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m all about saving money whenever possible and this is not a post about the relationship between price and the quality of food. These are just my observations from the vast majority of people I’ve interacted with and spoken to about their grocery store purchasing habits. What this post is meant for is to provide you with some quick and valuable information about how to look at nutrition labels so you can make the most informed food choice possible before making your purchase, whether the food is on sale or not.
That being said, I’m going to explain the basics about how to critically read a food label and touch on a few ingredients that are commonly seen in foods at the grocery store that should be avoided.
First off, before we delve into the components of a food label, it’s important to note that the majority of the foods you should buy will not even have one! That’s right. Can you guess what these foods might be? Go ahead, think…..Ok, enough thinking.
Fresh produce is the answer! These are the beautifully colored foods such as fruits and vegetables that patiently wait on the perimeter of the grocery store for you to buy them. These foods include apples, sweet potatoes, spinach, kale, cucumbers, tomatoes, avocados, etc. The list goes on and on.
The majority of your shopping carts should contain most of these foods because they are the most nutrient-dense foods, which provide your body with the vitamins and minerals it needs on a daily basis to thrive. If your diet is void of certain nutrients over a long period of time, health issues may arise. You can, indeed, find nutrition facts on these foods with a quick Google search and, of course, you can get some of these foods packaged, which is ok, just look for some of the ingredients to avoid, which I’ll mention later in this post.
Now, let’s get into nutrition labels. What does a nutrition label look like? And no, the featured picture label is not real. I just thought it was funny.
Boom, here’s a real Nutrition Label picture.
Once you start venturing away from the fresh produce section, you’ll start wandering into the dark lands of more refined, processed, not so great for your body, foods. These dark lands of the grocery store are easily identified as the aisles in the middle of the store and marked by numbers above them. These areas should be avoided, however, there are some food and household items which are necessary that will lure you into these aisles.
The Nutrition Label Breakdown
- Calories: This is the amount of energy that is provided by the food in the container from all the available macronutrients (i.e. carbs, protein, fats). Calories are obviously still important to track, but keep in mind that a calorie from a donut and a calorie from a fresh organic strawberry are not the same, and they will not have the same effect on the body. This is why the phrase “calories in vs. calories out” sucks and is incredibly misleading in regards to weight loss and general health.
- Serving Size: Pay particular attention to this line item because it determines how many calories and macronutrients you’re actually taking in. Take a few extra seconds and measure out a serving of whatever food you’re eating. Welcome to reality. How many servings of peanut butter did you actually eat off the spoon the other day? You may be surprised.
- Servings per Container: This is the amount of TOTAL SERVINGS of food that are actually in the container. Keep that in mind the next time you feel like eating a whole bag of nuts. Even though there are plenty of types of nuts that are very good for the body, if you have trouble with weight management, you may want to measure out a small amount of them for a snack instead of guessing how much you ate.
- Total Fat: This is the total amount of fat contained in 1 serving of the food. Any types of fat (i.e. trans, saturated, monounsaturated, and polyunsaturated) that are listed underneath the Total Fat content are included in the Total Fat content. These fats are what the Total Fat content is comprised of. There are books about this topic, but in general, stick to foods that are higher in monounsaturated fats like olive oil, avocados, and almonds. Polyunsaturated and saturated fats are OK and you shouldn’t worry about consuming them, DEPENDING ON THE SOURCE OF THE FOOD. If these fats come from highly refined vegetable oils (i.e. sunflower, safflower, canola), they are not cool to eat. However, if these fats come from organic olive oil, grass-fed butter, or grass-fed and finished beef, then they’re cool to eat. The source matters folks! The ratio of the fats you eat is more important than any fat alone, but that’s beyond the scope of this post. Finally, trans fats…clear them from your diet, end of story.
- Cholesterol: I’m going to skip this one because I could go on and on about it. Don’t fear it. The myth has long been debunked. Here’s a recent study: Dietary Cholesterol (even though the study shows the lack of evidence for dietary cholesterol as a source of cardiovascular disease, they still mention the potential adverse role saturated fat may play in disease, which I don’t agree with. Nevertheless, don’t worry about cholesterol). Eat your egg yolks from pasture-raised chickens.
- Total Carbohydrate: This tells you how much total carbohydrate you are ingesting for 1 serving of food, which includes everything you see below it (i.e. dietary fiber, total sugars, and added sugars). In general, you should avoid any foods with added sugars in them. They’re not necessary and do nothing to contribute to your health or energy levels. If you like to track your food intake, fiber content is important because it doesn’t get absorbed by the body, and has no effect on blood sugar or calorie intake. You can subtract the grams of fiber from the grams of carbohydrate which will give you a total number of carbohydrates that those calories in the serving of food are actually coming from. Total sugars are included in the total carbohydrate count so you don’t need to worry about those too much for the purpose of this post. Just be mindful of added sugars, which I’ll get to in the ‘Ingredients’ section.
- Protein: This is pretty easy to decipher. This tells you how much protein there is per serving of food.
- Vitamins and Minerals: This is the bottom section that tells you the key vitamin and mineral content of the food. The percentages are largely useless, because everyone has different needs based on age, fitness, health, nutrient deficiencies, etc. Instead, go here and look at the charts for vitamins and minerals for a better idea of your micronutrient needs.
Did I miss anything? Oh yes, probably the most important thing that’s just below or to the side of the Nutrition Label in fine print…the Ingredients!
This is the one thing that is probably the most easily missed when purchasing your food, yet it can completely sabotage your health and nutrition efforts if you don’t pay attention. You don’t have to see “Added Sugars” on the Nutrition labels for the food manufacturer to put added crap in your food.
My Top 3 items to look for and avoid in the ‘Ingredients’ list:
High Fructose Corn Syrup or any corn syrup: this crap is cheap and plentiful in the United States and many food manufacturers use it to sweeten up their foods like ketchup and barbecue sauce which Americans love sooooo much…It’s derived from corn and it does absolutely nothing to benefit your health, but it does do stuff like spike your blood sugar and promote inflammation within the body. Look for it, avoid it.
Sugar: In the ‘Ingredients’ list, all it usually says is ‘sugar’ or ‘cane sugar’ (which, if you had to chose, chose ‘organic cane sugar’ over just ‘sugar’), and it can be easily missed when you’re glancing over the label. Once again, added sugars are not necessary in the foods we eat. These are essentially broken-down, refined carbohydrates in the form of simple sugars that make their way very quickly and easily into your bloodstream. This can be very problematic if you’re trying to lose weight or attempting to manage a disease like diabetes. Instead, opt for natural forms of sugar from fruits that have fiber such as apples and raspberries.
Processed, Industrial Vegetable Oils: The next time you’re at the grocery store, go to the nut section and take a look at a few packages and containers of roasted nuts. What you’ll find in the ‘Ingredients’ list is something to the extent of “sunflower and/or safflower and/or canola and/or peanut and/or whatever other bulls**t” they put in those things. What the “and/or” most likely means is they put whatever is the cheapest, most available processed, rancid oil they have at the time of packaging into the nuts so they have a longer shelf-life. It’s really sad you can’t get a nice, delicious package of roasted, salted almonds without having them doused in highly-inflammatory, refined vegetable oils. It was a real disappointment for me when I discovered this after some time of thinking I was eating high-quality nuts, only to find out I was ingesting these terrible oils along with them. You are much better off getting yourself some raw nuts (e.g. almonds, cashews, brazils, macadamias) or you can experiment with roasting and salting them in your oven. You’ll see this in other products as well. Look out for these oils and avoid them so you don’t sabotage your health.
In summary, look for REAL FOODS in the “Ingredients’ list and buy packaged foods that keep the amount of ingredients to a minimum. Most of the food you should it has one ingredient, and that’s the food itself. One final general rule of thumb with packaged foods…If you can’t pronounce it, don’t eat it. That doesn’t apply for everything, but you’ll know it when you see it after you start looking at more labels.
I hope this post has been helpful with your food shopping experience. Please feel free to leave any comments or questions you have about this topic.