In several posts we’ve talked about reading food labels and ingredient lists. But what the heck does that mean and what are we looking, or rather not looking, for?
A food label, often referred to as a nutrition facts label, is required by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) on most packaged food products. These labels outline the serving size, calorie content, nutritional information and percent of daily value specific to that product. The FDA outlines on their website a basic article on How to Understand and Use the Nutrition Facts Label.
Let’s dive more into what we should be looking for and what we should be avoiding when reviewing food labels.
The first thing to look at is servings per container. Sometimes a product that you think is one serving, say a muffin for example, might have a serving size of 2, meaning the nutrition facts listed are for only half the muffin. Most of us, of course, are going to eat the entire thing, so what you thought was 200 calories, 10 grams of fat and 20 grams of sugar is actually 400 calories, 20 grams of fat and 40 grams of sugar. Big difference. You also see this pretty frequently on bottled “single serving” beverages. Keep an eye out and be aware of what you’re consuming.
The next area I would like to call out are the fats. Not all fats are created equally. According to an article by the Harvard Medical School, good fats are a major source of energy. They help our bodies absorb vitamins and minerals, build cell membranes, and are essential for blood clotting, muscle movement, and preventing inflammation. An avocado, for example, contains 29 grams of fat. Wow, you might be thinking, but the fats in an avocado are “good fats”, also referred to as unsaturated fats. Good fats help reduce the risk of heart and cardiovascular related diseases as well as improve overall health. Now the saturated and trans fats are another story. These fats are referred to as “bad fats” and increase the risk of developing diseases such as heart disease and high cholesterol. Trans fats are a by-product of chemically created oils (think hydrogenated oils). Saturated fats are naturally occurring but still clog those arteries (think cooled bacon grease). Bad fats are often found in highly processed foods and should be avoided as much as possible.
Sodium levels should also be monitored when purchasing packaged foods. Processed and packaged foods often contain obscene amounts of sodium to help preserve or make them taste better. Diets high in sodium can put us at risk for high blood pressure which can lead to heart attack or stroke. According to the FDA, “as a general guide, 5% DV or less of sodium per serving is considered low, and 20% DV or more of sodium per serving is considered high.” When possible, opt for sea salt or Himalayan pink salt over regular table salt as the former are typically less processed and contain trace amounts of other minerals.
Cholesterol & Fiber
Cholesterol and fiber are also important to keep an eye on. Unfortunately most packaged and processed foods tend to have high cholesterol and low fiber – the opposite of what our bodies need. Just another reason to eat foods that grow from the ground instead of those that come from a shelf. Our bodies naturally produce all of the cholesterol that we need, so eating foods with excess cholesterol increases our risk for heart attack and stroke. Fiber, on the other hand, is vital for a healthy body. Fiber can actually help lower cholesterol and is essential for maintaining a healthy weight, avoiding diseases such as diabetes and heart disease, and feeds the healthy bacteria in our guts.
The last area on the nutrition label we will cover is sugar. Similar to fats, all sugar is not created equal. The total sugar can include naturally occurring sugar such as what is found in fruit. For example, an apple contains around 25 grams of sugar depending on the variety. Here we want to keep an eye on the added sugar. Added sugars include corn syrup, high fructose corn syrup, dextrose and sucrose, among others, and are typically added to processed foods to make them sweeter and more enticing to consumers. Eating a diet high in added sugars can lead to weight gain, diabetes and heart disease.
Where I would really like to focus your attention to is the ingredient list, typically found below the nutrition facts label. According to the FDA, food manufacturers are required to list all ingredients in the food on the label. The ingredients used in the greatest amount are listed first, followed in descending order by those in smaller amounts. The ingredient list is where I focus my attention and avoid purchasing items that have ingredients other than actual food listed. Below is an example. The label on the left is from an all natural sprouted grain bread. The label on the right is from a national name brand white bread. It’s not difficult to tell which one I want to put in my body.
So what did we learn today? Read the labels on the products you purchase. Avoid bad fats, excess sodium and sugar and artificial ingredients. Your body will thank you.
As a reminder – I am not a doctor. If you have special dietary needs or would like to discuss a plan specific to you, please consult your physician.