Understanding food nutrition labels

Understanding food nutrition labels

Part of being plant-strong and eating whole foods is understanding food nutrition labels. Quite frankly, part of being healthy in any capacity is knowing how to read nutrition labels. More and more, we are demanding to know what’s on our plates and how what we consume is produced. Unfortunately we can’t have blind faith that our government will do the right thing.

We want to know, and rightly so, which foods have been sprayed with pesticides, which breads have sugar, and if there are preservatives like MSG in our veggie burgers.  We also want to know which crops are genetically modified (GMOs) so that we can make our own choices as to what we want to eat. Not just the list of ingredients, but the essentials. How many calories? Is there any fat? Saturated? What about cholesterol? And of course, is there any sugar?

What’s on the label?

The Nutrition Facts label reflects the new guidelines from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, and makes it easier for us to make healthier decisions and better informed food choices. However, we have to put on our deerstalkers if we want the whole story behind the labels. We need to shop smart because the food industry doesn’t always let us know what’s really going on – which would serve to spoil our appetites, our values and our health.

Are food labels regulated?

There are, unfortunately, health claims made on food labels that are not regulated by the FDA at all, which makes food product labels incredibly misleading. Part of the problem is that we can’t take the labels at face value, because we don’t know which nutrients and health claims are being regulated, and which aren’t.

In other words, some labels are tightly regulated, and some are not. “Low fat,” for example, according to the FDA, is less than 3 grams of fat per serving, and “low cholesterol” means that the food has less than 20 milligrams of cholesterol per serving, and 2 grams of saturated fat. The issue here is that very little justification is needed when labels say things like “heart healthy” or “immune booster” or “all natural.”

A closer look

If a food product doesn’t contain artificial flavors, chemicals, added colors and is minimally processed, it is considered “natural.” But while that food is raised or grown, it may have been treated with growth enhancers, antibiotics and other additives. Yet, using the word “healthy” is okay, because that food is low in fat and cholesterol.

The herbicides, pesticides and sugars that this “healthy” product contains, doesn’t sound healthy or natural to me. What kind of standards are those?  Antibiotics are used in livestock all the time, and the existence of superbugs is a great example. The FDA knows about superbugs in meat, yet does nothing to regulate this practice, or communicate on a food label the possible existence of them.

Full disclosure

Since we can’t rely on the FDA to come clean with what’s on our plates, we can educate ourselves. I’d like to start with the simple Nutrition Facts label that you see all the time on all food packages, in either this form, or something similar, depending on where you are from.

A note about serving size

The FDA says that serving size must be based on food amounts that people are actually eating — not what they should be eating. Apparently, the serving sizes have changed since the prior ones were published in 1993. A serving of ice cream in 1993 was 1/2 cup, but now it is 2/3 cup.  Don’t know about you, but I can’t stop at 2/3 cup of ice cream! Some foods are larger than a single serving but can still be consumed in one sitting, so you may see 2 columns – one is per serving, and the other is per package. That way you could tell how many calories and nutrients you are getting if you eat one serving, or the whole bag!

Calories per serving

This is the one to pay attention to, because a calorie is a unit of energy. Calories in. Calories out. Calories come from protein, carbs and fat. Eat too many and you gain weight. Simple as that.  So when you look at a nutrition label, you’ll see the amount of calories per serving, which means that if you eat the serving portion, you will consume that many calories. 


My answer to this, as someone always trying to maintain or lose, is the Fit Bit Alta, which I love because it is simple to use and allows me to sync with my FitBit app on my iPhone. The app keeps track of my intake of calories, my exercise, steps and the food I have eaten.

As long as I input the info correctly, the FitBit app will let me know how many calories I have left at any time of day. So, for example, if I walked 7500 steps and ate 850 calories, there is a good chance I will have a couple of hundred left over by dinnertime. This has been a life-saver for me, because I no longer have to worry about counting points or eating crap meals in boxes to lose weight. I can simply and easily track my calorie intake by using info on the nutrition label and putting that info into my FitBit app.

Good fats and bad fats

 Before we get to the Nutrition Label, let’s first talk about fat. There’s a world of difference between plant-based fats and anything else containing fat. The right kind of fat is healthy and not all fats are off limits. So that’s why I still felt like crap if I ate fat-free cookies and not French fries.  Healthy fats are great for skin, hair, and a healthy brain. Think avocado, flax oil, dark chocolate squares. 

If you eat healthy fats and don’t slide down the slippery slope into sugar and refined carbs, it will be much easier to maintain a healthy weight. Healthy fats also help you to stay slim!  Other not-so-great fats you could – and should – live without.

Trans Fats

Try to avoid these completely.  Most of us know by now that trans fats have NO health benefits and could actually be harmful to your health. Dairy products have naturally occurring trans fats, but most are man-made.  Hydrogen atoms are added to healthy vegetable fats which creates a saturated fat with a longer shelf-life. You will see trans fats mostly in fried foods, cakes, cookies, and margarines.  Keep this in mind: Not only do trans fats work to increase your “bad” cholesterol levels (LDL), but they also decrease the “good” cholesterol (HDL). (study)

Saturated Fats

When we think of heart disease, we think of saturated fats and the fact that we need to stay away from them, most of the time. Interestingly enough, some saturated fats from animal products, such as cheese, butter and fatty meats, tend to increase cardiovascular disease risk and cholesterol levels, (study), whereas dark chocolate, canned coconut milk and coconut oil don’t have the same negative effect. (study).  Once again, more evidence points to the benefits of avoiding animal-based, saturated fats, and sticking to plant-based, unprocessed ones.

Monounsaturated Fats

Very simple. Nuts, olive oil, avocados. They lower breast cancer risk, lower cholesterol levels, reduce belly fat and improve rheumatoid arthritis symptoms. Check out the studies and sources here, here, here and here.

Polyunsaturated Fats

These are the healthiest and most essential fats you will ever know and love. Found mostly in vegetable oils (corn, sunflower and safflower), these fats are so fabulous because our bodies can’t make them, and we must get them from our diets to benefit from their goodness. Omega-3s also fall into this category, and you’ll find omega-3s in foods like walnuts, chia seed and hemp seeds.  Improve your heart and brain health and decrease your risk of stroke.

Fat Wrap-Up

Before we get back to the Nutrition Label, let’s recap. Say buh-bye to the trans fats. Polyunsaturated fats are essential to your good health, monounsaturated fats can be beneficial, and plant-based saturated fats have some amazing qualities.

Sodium

How much salt is in your food? I’m sure you’ve seen cans of soup or pre-packaged meals where the sodium count is something crazy like 800 mgs or higher. The rule of thumb that I like to follow is this: No more sodium than the amount of calories listed on the label. So that means that if a food has 250 calories per serving, I will make sure that the amount of sodium listed is no more than 250 milligrams. 

Most of the sodium we consume isn’t even from picking up the salt shaker. It is from pre-packaged and processed foods. Most Americans eat more than 3400 milligrams of sodium each day. (source). The American Heart Association recommends fruits, vegetables, whole grains, poultry, fish and nuts. While I don’t endorse the “poultry” part of this, the point is to eat whole foods, which not only limits your sodium intake, but reduces the amount of trans fats and saturated fats as well.

A word of caution: Sodium is also disguised on the label as sodium nitrate, sodium citrate, sodium benzoate, or monosodium glutamate (MSG). Steer clear.

Carbs

There are three types of carbohydrates in foods: sugars, starches and fiber. Carbs are considered simple or complex, depending on how quickly the sugars in the food are digested. So, for example, foods that contain high amounts of simple sugars that raise the levels of blood fats in the body are considered simple carbs, and foods that contain low amounts of simples sugars that don’t affect blood fats in the body are considered complex carbs. 

Simple carbs and digested quickly and send an immediate burst of energy into your blood stream. Think white sugar, white rice, sweetened coffee, cookies, bagels. Fatigue comes quickly when the energy burst ends, and we all know that feeling of fatigue and exhaustion, creating a non-stop cycle of sugar-binging. 

Not all simple sugars are alike. Fruit has naturally-occurring sugar, which contains vitamins, minerals and fiber, which our bodies need.

Complex carbs are usually better food choices, as they are digested much more slowly, and release a steady supply of glucose into our blood streams for a longer period of time. Some excellent examples: whole grains, brown rice, beans, legumes. Pretty much all plant-based foods are complex carbs.

Think of a bowl of oatmeal versus a bowl of ice cream. Yes, they can both be pretty filling, but I can almost guarantee that you will eat more of the ice cream to feel as full as you would with a smaller bowl of oatmeal. The fiber in the oatmeal helps you feel full, and complex carbs release a steady supply of glucose, which provides a steady supply of energy. 

Protein

One of the last items on the Nutrition Label is protein. Most of us consume far more than we actually need, thanks to cultural factors, especially here in the U.S. During the Great Depression, meat was unaffordable by many families, and so it came to be that eating meat with a meal was considered a symbol of wealth and affluence.  Lots of families continue to make it part of every meal, and fear that they won’t be eating enough or not feel “full” enough if they don’t eat meat.  

No harm in getting too much protein, except that most protein is coming from meats which are high in saturated fats. Plus, eating more animal protein usually means that we are getting less of the other healthier food (protein) choices, like veggies, legumes and whole grains. 

When looking at the label, be sure that only 10 to 35% of your daily calories comes from protein. So, that’s about 56 grams for an adult man and 46 grams for an adult woman. Plant-based sources of protein are best. Read more about that here.

So there you have it. Most of it, anyway. Understanding food nutrition labels takes some sleuthing because there is so much that we need to know before we even look at the label. The key is to be an educated “consumer” and know what types of foods are healthy and what types to avoid.  Consuming plant-based, whole foods pretty much guarantees that you can write your own way to health with a nutrition label that doesn’t take a college degree to decipher. 

Don’t want to bother with nutrition labels?

I want to introduce you to the Forks Meal Planner. This is a program designed by the folks over at Forks Over Knives, and the reason I love it is because it makes my life easy. I don’t have to look at nutrition labels or even think about them, because I know the recipes here include all healthy ingredients.  They supply really simple weekly meal plans with really simple ingredients. Everything is planned out in advance. For a working woman like myself, this is a huge time-saver. NO reading labels. NO wasting time figuring out sodium and fat grams. NO guess-work. It’s all done for me. All I have to do is cook. 

With weekly meal plans, Forks Meal Planner takes the hard work out of making nutritious meals.
Using simple ingredients along with simple recipes, it is a plant-strong win!

 

Also published on Medium.

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11 thoughts on “Understanding food nutrition labels”

  • Hi Amy,first up let me say well done and good work on this post.Knowledge is power and there is heaps of both written into this blog !! I suffered a chronic health condition and was introduced to food labels etc as part of my rehab program run by the local health service.It was such an eye opener then and coming across your article has been a great refresher plus new things learned.Loved the link to forks over knives and the feature film was an educator for me as well.Really liked the in depth yet simple to read information in this r.e. labelling info as well as the breakdown r.e. fats,sodium,sugar etc.Its easy for us to not take our health seriously so when i see proactive,independent articles like this r.e. health etc I say well done for adding to the chorus.Great work Amy !!

    • Hi Billy, and so glad my article resonated with you! Being an educated consumer gives us more control over what we eat and I think it serves to direct us to a much healthier outlook overall. I love Forks Over Knives. The meals are great and so easy to prepare. Saves a ton of planning! Thanks again for writing!

  • Thank you, Amy, for telling me about the NON-GMO labeling.
    I’ll look for that label in the future.
    It’ll be interesting to see how many products which really are NON-GMO.

    Pernilla

  • Hello Amy,

    This is a great demystifying article about food nutrition labels. I think it is extremely important to know what you are eating. It is not always easy to read the information as it is written in very small letters and in addition to that there are so many different names for sugar and salt, and different kinds of fats. I also find it difficult to find out if the food comes from GMO crops. Therefore I’m very grateful for the explanation you have given.

    It is stunning to hear that the serving size is not based on the amount of food we should be eating. This does kind of educate people to eat more than necessary.

    The plant-based protein list is very helpful, I want to have a closer look at that list.

    Pernilla

    • Hi Pernilla — so glad this post was helpful to you. I hear from a lot of people how confusing those nutrition labels could be, and that’s why I decided to write the post. If the food is NON-GMO, it should have a label on the front of the package that says “NON-GMO” — otherwise there is no guarantee. Let me know if you need any other info! Thanks for writing!

  • This is such an outstanding resource for understanding the nutrition label. I love the bit about caloric intake. Most people don’t understand that no matter what kind of diet you practice, it’s all about consuming the right amount of calories to lose weight. This is seriously such a good resource for nutrition labels that I will probably share this with my over weight patients in my clinic. Thank you so much!

    • Hi Francis! I am so happy this post was helpful for you.  When you get down to the science of calories, it makes things very simple. It’s the emotional eating that gets us all into trouble…! Thanks for writing!

  • This was a really great post! I learned a lot about GMOs (which I really didn’t know what they were) and the different fats. I do have to watch my sodium intake because of my disease, so I do look at labels. What I really try to do is avoid boxed, canned or packaged foods altogether. Sometimes that can be difficult. My son was a competitive gymnast for 13 years, and they are very strict with their nutrition, and that alone kind of set up our habits for us. Great information!

    • Avoiding boxed and processed foods is always the best way to go, and the healthiest. Yes, very difficult to do for sure. When that can’t be avoided, there are lots of organic and natural products on the market that are packaged — you just have to read the nutrition labels! Thanks for writing!

  • Hi Amy,
    This post has added a lot more to my knowledge.

    I do always pay attention to nutrition facts before picking home any foodstuffs from shops. Unfortunately, most of the locally made foodstuffs in our stores don’t get this labels. It’s a shame.

    I have often had these fat type confusion, not being able to tell the differences. Now you see you have helped in this post in very simple terms. In 30 mins, I will be in a nearby super market so that means applying the content of your post here.

    Thanks for making this week kick off on a good footing

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