So you’ve decided to stray outside of the area of the supermarket that has fruit, vegetables and meat.
No problems, there can be some good food there, especially when had in moderation. But with prepackaged foods it’s hard to know what’s actually in it and what to look out for.
But fear not, I’m here to guide you in what is surely the most interesting thing you will encounter today. Nutrition labels!
Why Learn This Stuff?
Well since you’re here on this website I guess you have some kind of health and fitness goal. And whatever that goal is, eating is an important part of it.
Now you may not be tracking macros or anything in depth like that, but you should know what you are putting in your body. And what to avoid. There’s a lot on these labels, so I’ll explain as simply as I can what’s important and what’s not, so you don’t need that PHD to understand it.
A Tale of Two Stories
There are two parts of the label you will need to start looking at. Those are the Nutrition Facts, and the Ingredients.
Read just one or the other and it might seem okay. Read both and you could be in for a shock.
This is the big label on the back of the box. There are some FDA mandated changes coming that will make things a bit easier, but let’s start with what’s current.
This is what your label is going to look like.
Serving Size – This is important once you have made the decision to buy the product. People very often overestimate a serving size and go much too big. Don’t do that.
Calories – Whether you are trying to gain or lose weight it’s important to know how many calories you need to achieve that goal. Unless you’re going deep on your macros it’s not that important to note the calories from fat, aside from a general rule that it should be no more than about a third of the total calories.
Fat – Fat is important. It has been unfairly demonized in the past (particularly saturated fat) and current studies suggest about a third of your calories should come from fat. But not Trans Fat. Trans Fat is bad mmmkay! Trans Fat should be 0!
Cholesterol – Not that big of a deal compared to other stuff. Unless you have cholesterol issues that you need to watch out for.
Sodium – Also not that big of a deal unless it’s excessively high. Note the % Daily Value to determine whether it seems high.
Total Carbohydrates – This is a big one. Particularly SUGARS. Added sugars are not good. And a significant portion of the population consumes too much added sugar. As much as you can, try to avoid all added sugars.
Now until the FDA changes come through you will need to read the ingredients to determine if the sugar label here is due to naturally occurring sugars or added sugars. I’ve detailed that below.
Protein – Protein is good. Protein is great. Protein will help you lose (or gain) that weight!
Most people don’t consume enough protein. It’s generally quite hard to achieve a large enough amount of protein from food sources alone, so get excited with foods that have a high number here!
Vitamins and Minerals – These are good to know. And particularly in areas where you may know that you are deficient. Generally, most vitamins and minerals listed here are good.
Now for the Ingredients
Importantly, ingredients are listed in descending order by weight. So the first item on the list is the biggest ingredient by weight in the product.
In most cases, a shorter ingredient list is better. The more ingredients, the more likely there are artificial things that you don’t need that are there to enhance flavor or color or something silly like that.
The sugars. Here is where you will find out if those sugars in the Nutrition Facts are natural or added. And added sugars are tricky, often with names that mean nothing to most people. So here’s a list of the most commonly occurring ones:
Agave Syrup Honey
Brown Sugar Invert Sugar
Cane Juice and Cane Syrup Lactose
Confectioners Sugar Maltose
Corn Sweetener and Corn Syrup Malt Syrup
Fructose Raw Sugar
Fruit Juice Concentrates Sucrose
Granulated White Sugar Syrup
High-Fructose Corn Syrup
You’ll notice I have highlighted High-Fructose Corn Syrup. This is a whole other order of bad on the bad scale. Much worse for you than even regular white sugar. I could write a whole article about this alone (and maybe I will), but it’s enough for you to know to avoid this one as much as possible.
Now let’s look at an example. Below is the ingredient list of a popular low fat black cherry greek yogurt. Sounds healthy right? Let’s see.
Nonfat Yogurt (Cultured Pasteurized Nonfat Milk), Evaporated Cane Sugar, Black Cherries, Water, Fruit Pectin, Cherry Juice Concentrate, Locust Bean Gum, Natural Flavor, Lemon Juice Concentrate. Contains Milk. Contains Live And Active Cultures: S. Thermophilus, L. Bulgaricus, L. Acidophilus, Bifidus And L. Casei.
Look at what I have highlighted above. The second ingredient by weight is cane sugar! There’s more sugar than cherries in this cherry yogurt!
All of a sudden that healthy fruit yogurt is not so healthy.
But if you really want fruit yogurt, there’s an easy solution. Buy plain and add your own fresh fruit. Look at the ingredients of the same brand plain low fat greek yogurt below.
Nonfat Yogurt (Cultured Pasteurized Nonfat Milk). Contains Milk. Contains Live And Active Cultures: S. Thermophilus, L. Bulgaricus, L. Acidophilus, Bifidus And L. Casei.
Much better right? It’s just milk. And because it’s the same pack size it has the added benefit of another 3g of protein packed in! That’s a win-win.
Producers of food often pack in a number of artificial ingredients and sugars into packaged foods in order to make it taste better and increase shelf life. By learning how to read the nutrition label you will be able to make informed decisions as to what is good and what you should leave on the shelf.
Read the ingredients list first. If it’s short, to the point, and seems like it’s filled with wholesome foods, read the nutrition facts. If it reads like a novel, best put that one back and make a different choice.
Not all packaged food is evil. And believe me once you start reading labels you will get very good at determining quickly what’s good and what’s not. It will actually become a habit. I’ve actually read the ingredients list on a packet of whole raw almonds, ingredients: almonds. And remember, everything in moderation!