Reading Nutrition Facts Labels
Many people are confused by the nutrition
labels they see on packaged foods in
Before we talk about some simple tips for
reading those labels,
it’s important to remember that some
of the healthiest foods in the store,
like fresh fruits and
vegetables, or a filet of fish.
These foods don’t need nutrition
labels to tell you they’re nutritious.
So one simple strategy for
is to try as much as possible,
to avoid foods with nutrition labels.
Because by definition, these are packaged,
and more heavily processed,
than fresh foods.
Having said that, since the majority of
us eat at least some packaged food items,
it’s good to know what to look for,
especially if you’re comparing
two packaged items and
trying to make an informed decision.
Firstly, it’s important to keep in mind
that the nutrition label may not reflect
the contents of the entire package.
There’s often more than a single
serving in one container and
this can be confusing and
misleading to many people.
I saw a mini loaf of banana bread
in a shop the other day and
thought hm, not bad.
The sugar, fat and
calories in this are pretty reasonable.
Then I saw that there were five
servings in that mini loaf.
Multiplied by five, the nutrition
label didn’t look so healthy any more.
Underneath the serving size,
we see total calories.
This probably isn’t the best way to judge
whether something is good for you or
not because some foods like nuts and
avocados, for example, are high
in calories but also very healthy as long
as they’re eaten in reasonable amounts.
But if weight loss is a goal, and
you’re comparing two cereals for example,
the calories in a packaged food item
are something you want to keep an eye on.
The next thing to look at especially for
comparing breakfast cereals
is the dietary fiber.
Dietary fiber is important for
maintaining gastrointestinal health,
stabilizing blood glucose levels after
eating, and delaying the return of hunger.
So, choosing a cereal that’s higher in
fiber is usually a sensible thing to do.
Next, we want to look at
the sugars in the cereal.
There is convincing evidence that
our modern epidemics of obesity and
diabetes are at least partly related to
the fact that we eat far too much sugar.
To convert the amount of sugar in grams
to teaspoons, just divide by four.
You might be alarmed to see that
some children cereals contain 5 or
more teaspoons of sugar per serving.
Next, we want to look at
the total amount of fat and
the breakdown of the fat
content in the food.
In general, the fats in processed
foods tend to be less healthy
than the fats found in plant
foods like avocados or nuts.
These are naturally
occurring unsaturated fats.
Saturated fats like those
found in red meats and
butter can be eaten in reasonable amounts.
And trans fats, which are more
commonly found in processed foods,
these kinds of fats should
be avoided entirely.
In fact, legislation in the U.S.
was passed in 2015 ordering food
manufacturers to stop using trans fats
because of the associated increased risk
of atherosclerosis and heart disease.
Choosing foods with less sodium is
also a good idea given the fact that
packaged foods often contain
much more added salt
than the less processed
versions of those foods.
Nutrition labels will also often
contain a list of vitamins and
minerals found in the food.
And this can be misleading.
Because added vitamins and minerals don’t
necessarily mean that the food is healthy.
And in fact, some unhealthy
foods have added vitamins and
minerals because the manufacturers
of those foods know that nutrition
claims tend to increase sales to
the health conscious consumer.
Helping patients use nutrition labels to
compare packaged food items is important.
But just as important is encouraging
them to eat fewer packaged foods and
crowd those out with plant based foods
that don’t come with nutrition labels.