How to Read Food Labels


 

How many people read the nutrition label?  I mean really read it and understand it.   Or do you glaze over it and let the label advertising fill in the blanks with words like “healthy”, “reduced fat” or “made with whole grains”.

You’d be surprised how many people fall into this second category.

My mom, God bless her, falls into this category.  For a woman of her generation (and I’ll leave it at that) she is in really good health.  She exercises and limits the processed foods.  People usually mistake her for 20 years younger than she is.  She also keeps up to date with the newest and outlandish claims that makes the headlines.  Over the course of growing up, I was told to limit fat then carbs, then to not eat a lot of red meat.  Now I’m on a high fat and red meat diet but I do limit my carbs.  See mom I listen.

I’m not trying to single out my mom, but she is the prime example of what food advertisement is trying to target with the “healthy” claims.  There is a gap in knowledge between what the headlines read and the actual truth. That gap is exploited and then the money rolls in.  Well played food advertisement, well played.

The truth is, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has no rules or regulations on the terms, healthy or made with whole grain so food advertisement can use these terms all wily nilly.  And for something to be labeled reduced fat, it has to have 25% less.  So if a full fat food has 8g of fat the reduced fat version has 6g.  Wow, that’s a whole 18 calorie difference.  You can burn those extra 18 calories washing the dishes for 5 min.

The problem is that no one is was given an education on the label, you had to seek it out for yourself. Well buckle up, it’s time to get edumecated.

Looking at the FDA website, there is actually a rhyme and reason to the nutrition label.  Here is the example from their website.

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SERVING SIZE

 

This is broken down into easy standard measureable units.  Cups, oz, g and pieces all can be measured and will all roughly be the same regardless of who measures them. This number is helpful if you are eating a more than a serving.  It will give you a number to multiply the nutrients by.

For an example, if you rip open a bag of chips and the serving size is 10 chips and with 2 total servings per bag.   You consume the entre bag, that is 2 servings.  The 1 serving calories and nutrients on the label have to be doubled.  Also listed is the servings per container.

CALORIES

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This is the biggie.  And not this Biggie. The calorie is a unit of measure for food.  Again the number you see here is for 1 serving.  If you eat 2 servings, double this number.

The total calorie number is from the addition of the calories from fats, carbs and protein.  If you check the bottom of the nutrition label it will tell you how many calories there are per gram of nutrient.  So for carbs and protein, one gram will equal 4 calories.  Fats are 9 calories per gram.

Pop Quiz:  If Billy has a cup of macaroni and cheese that has 37g of carbs 5g of fat and 2g of protein how many calories is Billy’s mac and cheese?

Carbs 37g x 4 = 148 calories

Fat 5g x 9 = 45 calories

Protein 2g x 4 = 8 calories

Total: 201 calories

Correct Gold Star for the Day!

 

THE LIMITING NUTRIENTS

 

This next section is labeled as the limiting nutrients section.  In it you’ll find fat, cholesterol, sodium.  These nutrients are linked to certain chronic diseases, some caners or high blood pressure.

The fat number is the total of the saturated, monounsaturated, polyunsaturated and trans amounts.  Trans fat without question is the bad egg in this group.  Avoid trans fats, there is no nutritional benefit.  Unsaturated fats are liquid at room temperature, like olive oil and saturated fats are solids at room temperature like animal fats.  Unsaturated are by far the best type of fat to consume as they can be linked to a healthy heart.  Saturated fats should be eaten sparingly.  Saturated fats are used to produce testosterone so a diet low in saturated fats could also be low in testosterone.  Good for the ladies bad for the men.

Cholesterol is next up and it is also linked with hormone production.  But too much can cause problems in your heart and arteries.  This is due to cholesterol being a waxy-like molecule and sticking to things within the arteries.

Sodium or just table salt is good in moderation like anything else.  Moderate amounts help you retain water (which is good) and helps regulate blood pressure.  This number is especially good to check when going out to eat.  Restaurants tend to jack up the sodium content to make the food taste better.

CARBS

To not have carbs in the limiting nutrient section is beyond me.  Carbs are good for the body but an overconsumption is what is leading the world down a wide path.  The carb section is the total of sugars (boo), dietary fiber (yeah) and insoluble fiber (double yeah).

When counting your daily carb intake make sure to subtract out the insoluble fiber.  Insoluble fiber doesn’t get broken down in the body.  Its main objective is to push the poop out.  Let’s see if anyone comments on that last line.

When choosing carbs go for a higher fiber content and lower sugar.  This will help you make better choices for food and when eaten, help you stay fuller longer.

 

PROTEIN

Ah my favorite nutrient.  The building block of muscle and everything else that your body does or grows.  This is the one nutrient that should be consumed in abundance.  Turning protein into fat in the body is a really inefficient and tough chemical reaction.  Unless you are eating nothing but protein the body tries not to do this.  Try consuming 1g of protein per pound of body weight.  This is the only section that I will give a recommendation because people are far too deficient in this nutrient.

 

THE GET ENOUGH OF THESE NUTRIENTS

 

The vitamins section.  Vitamin A, C, Calcium and Iron are all necessary for the body to perform as it should.  This section is really the only section I pay attention to the percentages because well really there is nothing else to look at.

Percent Daily Value

 

In my opinion this is useless.  The values given are for a diet consisting of 10% protein, 30% fat and 60% carbs.  That is a recipe to get fat especially in today’s sedentary lifestyle.  I personally, when not going through some new diet experiment, am around 40% protein, 35% carbs and 25% fat.  I found I can eat this way and maintain my current muscle mass and energy while limiting additional fat.

INGREDIENTS

 

Besides the carbs, protein and fat section I find this section to be most helpful.  I like to keep the ingredients to a minimum.  For example, the peanut butter I use has 1 ingredient.  Peanuts.  There isn’t a laundry list of chemical and sweetener fillers.  Take a look at the label of a reduced fat peanut butter next time.  Are all those chemicals necessary?  Nope just peanuts.

The first ingredient is the main ingredient and followed by the second blah, blah, blah.  I always look to make sure the first couple of ingredients are whole foods or some sort of added nutrients.  If there are preservatives in there they are usually down at the end.  Most of those just pass right through your system and do not collect $200.

If the words sugar, enriched or high fructose corn syrup are in there I put it back on the shelf.  Sugar and high fructose corn syrup are obvious but the enriched means that during the milling process, usually of bread, the wheat was stripped of just about, if not all of it’s nutrients.  After the wheat is ground into a flour they enrich it with the vitamins and minerals.  Call me old fashion but I would prefer the original nutrients.

Well that concludes today’s lesson.  Leave a comment if you have any question or would like me to clarify anything.

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Dave


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