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Decoding the Nutrition Label

Updated: Nov 9, 2020

Have you ever gone to the grocery store and started looking at food products and found yourself confused trying to figure out what is a healthy option and what’s not?

You’re not alone.

The key is looking at the back of the package instead of the front.

While the front of the package might host deceptive claims such as healthy, all natural, GMO free , Gluten-Free etc. the nutrition label tells the true story.

In this example we will be reviewing the label for yogurt covered raisins.

When you look at the label these are the most important components to pay attention to:

1. Ingredients List: This is what you are actually eating!!! If there is a laundry list of words you don’t recognize or wouldn’t find in your own kitchen, it is likely highly processed. Aim to choose foods and products in their most whole and natural form possible. Remember that the ingredients are listed by quantity, so the first ingredient is the largest quantity and the last is the least.

Red flag ingredients to avoid:

· Artificial Sweeteners such as Sucralose or Aspartame

· Hydrogenated or Partially Hydrogenated Vegetable Oils

· Monosodium Glutamate (MSG)

· Artificial Colors and Flavors

· Sodium Nitrite/Nitrites

· High Fructose Corn Syrup

· Vegetable oils such as corn, soy, bean, canola

· Bisphenol A, aka BPA

2. Serving Size: When looking at the Nutrition Facts label, take a look at the number of servings in the package and the serving size. It is found at the very top of the food label and provided in familiar units, such as cups or tbsp., followed by the metric amount, e.g., the number of grams (g). It’s important to realize that all the nutrient amounts shown on the label, including the number of calories, are based on one serving. These serving sizes are frequently much smaller than the average person consumes in one sitting.

In our example, one serving of yogurt covered raisins is 2 tbsp. If you ate the entire bag you would multiply all of the numbers on the label by 4.5, as the label lists there are 4.5 servings in the bag. In this example, you would be consuming 585 calories, 27 g of fat, 90 g. of carbohydrates and 81 grams of sugar if you were to eat the entire bag.

Many people underestimate their portion sizes and end up overeating on calories. If you are aware of your serving sizes you can prevent this from happening.

3. Fat: Fat does not make you fat and in fact is a very healthy and essential part of a balanced diet. The main thing to look for on the label and avoid is trans fats aka hydrogenated oils as they have been linked to heart disease. If a product contains less than 0.5 grams per serving of trans fats it does not have to be listed on the label but will be listed as hydrogenated oil on the ingredients list.

4. Sodium: Most healthy adults without high blood pressure don’t need to worry about sodium. If you do have high blood pressure the recommendation is to consume less than 1500 mg daily. If you are someone who consumes a lot of frozen meals or fast foods you will find this very difficult to do as these food items are very high in sodium.

5. Carbohydrates: Carbohydrates are a healthy part of a balanced diet and provide us with the energy to fuel our day. It is important to note that if your food item contains fiber or sugar alcohols they can be deducted out to calculate your net carbohydrate. If a food item has 20 grams of carbohydrates and 10 grams of fiber your net carbohydrate (what your body is actually absorbing) would be 10 grams of carbohydrate.

6. Sugar: Sugar goes by many different names — most of which you may not recognize. Food manufacturers use this to their advantage by purposely adding many different types of sugar to their products to hide the actual amount. In doing so, they can list a healthier ingredient at the top, mentioning sugar further down. So even though a product may be loaded with sugar, it doesn’t necessarily appear as one of the first three ingredients.

To avoid accidentally consuming a lot of sugar, watch out for the many different names of sugar in ingredient lists such as cane sugar, invert sugar, corn sweetener, dextran, molasses, malt syrup, maltose, and evaporated cane juice etc.. If you see any of these in the top spots on the ingredients lists — or several kinds throughout the list — then the product is high in added sugar.

If your food item is sweet but does not list sugar as an ingredient it is likely sweetened using an artificial sweetener such as aspartame or sucralose, which you would see listed in the ingredients.

Lastly, it is important to understand that some foods are naturally sweet without the use of added sugars. Fruit and dairy products are an example of this. These items might list containing sugar on the nutrition facts panel but the “added sugar” should be 0 g.

It is recommended women consume <25 g of sugar daily and mend <30 g.

7. Protein: To increase feelings of fullness and reduce risk of over eating it is recommended that all meals and snacks contain at least 5 g of protein.

The Bottom Line

Try to consume as much fiber as possible, it is filling and promotes digestion.

Try not to consume anything with more than 5 g of added sugar per serving.

Ask yourself: Is this serving size realistic? How much am I actually consuming?

Read the ingredients list and be a sleuth ! Avoid items with many ingredients you don’t recognize. The best way to avoid being misled by product labels is to avoid processed foods altogether. After all, whole food doesn’t need an ingredients list.

Still, if you decide to buy packaged foods, be sure to sort out the junk from the higher-quality products with the helpful tips in this article.

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