Reading food labels is an essential step in maximizing your health. You are, after all, what you eat!
It also helps you select high quality products for your diet. In fact, I consider it so essential that I take my classes into food stores and we go up and down the aisles discussing foods and reading labels. It’s actually quite fun!
It may seem simple, but often I find people neglect to take into account nutrition facts as a whole. It’s easy to fall victim to the flashy marketing on the front cover, or go immediately to checking the macronutirent breakdown (protein, fat, carbohydrate). Often though, you’ll end up selecting foods that seem like better choices than they are, and discard many good choices you believe to be “unhealthy.”
So, how should we read the labels?
First, make sure you look to see how large a single serving is. This is often the most deceptive part. Many foods advertise calories per serving. However, a single serving will be much smaller than what you think. Even products as small as a 16oz beverage or single nutrition bar will show a food label that is representative of a single serving, not the total amount within the package or bottle. Interesting, huh? And I don’t know too many people who would only drink a single serving of a beverage or eat only a small portion of a bar once they start eating.
So don’t skip the first line; make sure you know how big a serving is, and how many servings you are buying in all.
Next is the most popular part of the label: the middle portion. Here you will find information on calories, protein, fat, and carbohydrates. Additionally, you will see information on sodium content, as well as how many grams of fat come from different fatty acid profiles, and how many grams of carbohydrates come from sugar and fiber.
These are obviously important considerations, but view them within the context of the product as a whole. And remember to view these within the parameters of a single serving. For example, many canned products will provide an entire day’s worth of sodium!
Moving down the label, vitamins and minerals are featured next. This is important for everyone, and a good gauge of how nutrient dense a product is. You should be filling your diet with as much nutrient dense foods as possible. The bigger the numbers you see here, the better.
Last, but surely not least, is the ingredients list. I usually start with this part! Why? Because many items can be okay until this piece of information. As a general rule I like to limit ingredients to five or less, and I look at the order of them as well. When sugar is the second ingredient after water, you can be pretty sure that you’re about to consume sugar.
I hope this gentle reminder about reading labels will keep you in the label reading habit, or get you started again. And if you eat really healthy foods, you won’t have many labels to read at all!!