Reading a nutrition label is like deciphering CIA code. You’ve read the words before, and you know what they mean, but you have no idea the semantics or the context in which they’re being used. Between scientific names for what you think, maybe, could be sugar, and artificial flavors colors like FD&C Red No. 40 you might need to enroll yourself in an evening community college course of “Food Dictation”. With an overwhelming amount of options hitting grocery store shelves, and society embarking on a paradigm shift towards healthier living, learning how to read a nutrition label, couldn’t be more crucial, than now. Scanning calorie count, and sugar while you glance at a product before you toss it in the cart, just isn’t going to cut it
How To Read A Nutrition Label
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recently announced that food manufacturers will be required to implement a new nutrition facts panel, to reflect new scientific information, including the link between diet and chronic diseases such as obesity and heart disease. The new label will make it easier for consumers, you, to make better-informed food choices. The new changes will be required to be used by Jan 1, 2020 [R].
Larger Type Size For Calories
This change is basically just an aesthetic one, with a bigger, bolder, typeface reflecting calorie per serving. Remember, it’s not the quantity, as much as the quality of calories that you’re ingesting. A bowl of flaming hot Cheetos and Greek Yogurt may have the exact same calorie count, but they are FAR from the same thing.
Updated Serving Sizes
Serving size has been updated, to reflect what you actually eat in one sitting, as opposed to what you’re recommended to eat. For example, cookies traditionally have two servings, but who the hell eats half a cookie? No one! Additionally, the serving size will be larger and bold, to display more prominently.
Includes Added Sugars
Instead of including the total sugar (added sugars and naturally occurring sugars) the new food label breaks it down. This is a pretty significant change, and a good one, since it will include the amount both in grams and as a percentage of daily value, which will help with excessive sugar intake (insert thought-provoking emoji) The FDA’s reasoning for this change, is that “Scientific data shows that it is difficult to meet nutrient needs while staying within calorie limits if you consume more than 10 percent of your total daily calories from added sugar, and this is consistent with the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans.”
Change In The Nutrients Required
Get this. Vitamin D, Potassium, Calcium, and Iron will still be required to be on the new nutrition label. However, vitamins A and C will no longer have to be listed. This is because vitamin A and C deficiencies are rare, while CDC surveys suggest that American’s lack vitamin D and potassium, which is supported with an increase in dial value from 400-600 milligrams. If you’re looking for an amazing Vitamin D3 supplement, we’ve got you covered.
Removal Of “Calories From Fat”
“Calories from Fat” is being removed because research shows the type of fat trans fat, saturated fat, total fat is more important than the amount.
Updated Daily Values
The recommended daily values (DV) footnote is changing to better explain what percent Daily Value means. It will read: “The % Daily Value tells you how much a nutrient in a serving of food contributes to a daily diet. 2,000 calories a day is used for general nutrition advice.”
You can see the image below for a side-by-side comparison.
How To Read A Nutrition Label – 13 Important Things You Need To Know
1. The Ingredients List
Contrary to popular belief, the most important component to reading a food label is the ingredients list. You know, the tiny fine print under the macronutrients. Simply looking at the nutrition panel and macronutrients can be misleading, especially since the first thing you probably notice is the calorie count. Quality of calories is always a more important factor than quantity of calories. Looking at the ingredients list is a better indicator of the actual health value of the food you’re consuming, and what’s really in it.
Now if you encounter a labyrinth of ingredients you’ve never heard of, that’s a definite red flag, and usually indicates that it’s heavily processed.
2. Serving Size
Serving size can be tricky. It’s deceptive, even when you’re diligent about checking calories. For example, let’s say you add granola to your Greek Yogurt. The serving size is 1/3 cup, which contains 120 calories per serving. You can quickly take that one serving, and make it two-three servings or 240-360 calories, if you’re not watching your pour.
Paying attention to serving size with a loosely packaged food is tough, especially when one serving just doesn’t fill you up. Remember though, you’re not just doubling the calories, you’re doubling everything else in that granola, like sugar.
Per the new FDA guidelines, total amount of servings, in addition to serving size will be on the new nutrition label. For now, if you’re not sure, then measure it out.
Here’s the thing about calories, the quality of your nutrition matters. Research has shown that people who consume the same amount of calories, but those that eat whole foods, grains, fruits, and nuts, lose more weight than those who don’t. The most important factor when it comes to calories is the source. Consumption of high-quality carbohydrates, lean grass-fed meats, grains, vegetables, and fruits, will lead to a healthier weight, less inflammation, and less chance to develop chronic disease.
Diets such as IIFYM and Flexible dieting, that encourage “counting macros” instead of considering the quality of food first, set you up for imminent failure, and long term health issues. Foods with refined sugars, simple carbohydrates, preservatives, will lead to weight gain, inflammation, and bad nutritional habits.
The point is, that even if you were to eat the same amount of calories, they affect your body in fundamentally different ways.
Out of all the items listed on a food label, sugar is the one you should be most concerned with. With the newly implemented changes that will include added sugars to food labels, you’ll now have a semblance of how much extra sugar your food really has.
Added sugars can quickly lead to weight gain, since they’re essentially just empty calories and simple carbohydrates. Although your jaw would drop if a banana had a nutrition label, naturally occurring sugars are different, since they contain additional nutritional value beyond a packaged food such as potassium, vitamin c, and fiber.
The current nutrition label does not distinguish between added sugars and natural occurring sugars, which is another reason you should be paying attention to the ingredients list, to find out what you’re really eating.
Sugar likes to hide and when added to products they often come up in the ingredients list with a multitude of different aliases, such as
- Corn syrup
- High fructose corn syrup
- Brown rice syrup
- Barley malt
Surprisingly, the current nutrition label does not indicate a percent DV for sugar. Only recently has there been federal guidelines for sugar, as there are for other nutrients on a nutrition label. As you can imagine, this gave manufacturers a loophole to disguise “healthy” foods such as flavored yogurts, and “natural” cereals and exceed the recommended amount of 25 grams per day.
The updated nutrition facts panel set DV for sugar at 50g per day, and for someone consuming a 2,000-calorie diet, it’s double what the recommended amount is according to the American Heart Association.
5. Total Fat
Remember, it’s not about quantity its about quality. Not all fats are created equal, and if you’re still afraid of fat, then you’re going to need to see a food therapist. Fat does not raise levels of the evil culprit that actually creates fat, insulin.
RELATED ARTICLE How To Control Insulin Sensitivity
Fat is a vital macronutrient that provides your body with energy; helps transport vitamins and minerals, and establishes the ability to create cell membranes. Your body needs fat, so severely restricting it, even if you’re trying to lose weight, is never a good idea. If you’re buying non-fat or low-fat foods, then STOP. Fat does not make you fat and you have to stop thinking it does. There are four distinct types of fats you will notice on a nutrition label: saturated, trans, polyunsaturated, monounsaturated.
6. Monounsaturated (MUFA)
MUFAs are fatty acids with the least amount of hydrogen and known to be the ‘good fat’, such as nuts, olives, and avocados. MUFAs can help control hunger levels and reduce cholesterol levels. They also help your body burn more body fat.
Polyunsaturated fats are a combination of both good fats and bad fats. They typically stay liquid whether in warm or cold room temperature. Walnuts and avocados, not liquid are good examples of polyunsaturated fats and contain healthy Omega-3, which can benefit heart health, mood state, and reduce inflammation. If you’re looking for the best Omega-3 supplement, look no further.
Saturated fats are very common amongst a typical American diet. Saturated fats are solid at room temperatures, such as butter, coconut milk, or the fat found in a piece of bacon. The problem with saturated fat is the common misconception, that dietary saturated fat is harmful to your health when in reality there’s no evidence that proves saturated fat is actually bad for you. If you were to see a high amount of saturated fat on a nutrition label, you’d probably consider that food to be bad for you, right? Wrong.
According to a meta-analysis of 21 different studies conducted by the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, there has been no conclusive evidence found that dietary saturated fat is associated or linked with an increased risk of coronary heart disease, or cardiovascular disease [R]
9. Trans Fat
This is the one you have to look out for. Trans fats are man-made fats and a large contributor to the belief and ideology that fat, makes you fat. Especially prevalent in the mid-century throughout the 1990s trans fat could be found in foods such as vegetable oils, margarine, and shortening. It’s by far the worst type of dietary fat and is made through a process called hydrogenation that solidifies healthy fats, by transforming them with more hydrogen. By eating foods rich in trans fat, your body increases the amount of harmful Low-Density Lipoprotein (LDL) and decreases the production of beneficial High-Density Lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol. Good news for you, as of 2015 the FDA officially removed the GRAS “Generally recognized as safe” status from trans fat, and has now been officially banned in the U.S. Food manufacturers have been given until June 2018 to comply and remove all trans fat from as an ingredient and smaller food companies until July 2019. For now, it’s your responsibility to read nutrition labels and stay away from trans fat.
10. Percent Daily Value (DV)
The percent Daily Value (DV) indicates how much one serving of food contributes to the daily-recommended intake of a nutrient, based on a 2,000 calorie diet.
Sodium or salt is a mineral that is responsible for keeping your heartbeats steady, and maintaining the proper balance of water and minerals, amongst other essential biological function. In the average American diet, however, you more than enough sodium, and too much can be bad, causing high blood pressure and increased risk of heart attack and stroke. The salt typically found in most packaged foods is non-iodized refined salt, which is chemically cleaned and bleached. When you’re trying to choose what to buy and you’re comparing nutrition labels, always opt for the one that has lower sodium content. You’re most likely getting enough throughout the day already.
Cholesterol is misunderstood. For most of us, we’ve gone our entire life without having much concern, or even much knowledge of what cholesterol really is, or how cholesterol really works.
Contrary to popular belief, cholesterol in food has little effect on cholesterol in the bloodstream produced by the body which is the cholesterol that actually matters. For years, you’ve been warned against eating foods high in cholesterol and the dangers associated with cholesterol and heart disease. However recent studies suggest that’s actually an inverse relationship with cholesterol and mortality rates [R]
Cholesterol shouldn’t be of much concern, but sugar is. In a meta-analysis of that followed over 40,000 people, those that had the highest intake of sugar had a 400% increase in their risk of a heart attack [R]
RELATED ARTICLE Cholesterol 101: Quick Guide To Good And Bad Cholesterol
13. Total Carbohydrates
A little fact that most of us probably don’t know, is that Total carbohydrates in a product refers to the total combined amount of starch, sugar, and fiber. But before you start analyzing the carbohydrate content of your protein bar, not all carbohydrates are created equal.
Despite popular dieting trends, your body needs carbohydrates to survive. Carbohydrates provide the fast-acting energy your body and brain need to function and can be broken down into two main categories – Simple and Complex.
Simple carbohydrates and refined carbohydrates such as sugar, white flour, and sugar substitutes or additives can raise blood glucose levels, add more body fat, and increase your risk of chronic disease. Complex cabohydrates however of functional carbs as I like to call them, come from vegetables, fruits, grains, and legumes which are good for you.
When you’re scanning your nutrition facts, make sure you understand what carbohydrates should go into the product you’re buying. For example – if you’re purchasing whole wheat bread, and the ingredients list includes organic whole wheat, organic cracked wheat, and stone milled whole-wheat flour etc., then you have nothing to worry about. Bur the first ingredient starts with high-fructose corn syrup, you should think again.
RELATED ARTICLE The Difference Between Complex And Simple Carbohydrates
14. Dietary Fiber
Fiber is a complex carbohydrate that unlike other carbohydrates does not spike your blood sugar levels. The human digestive system cannot break fiber down until it nears the end of the digestive tract, and is therefore considered to be a non-digestible carbohydrate. Fibrous foods include bran, nuts, wheat, vegetables, barley, beans, and oats. Complex carbohydrates are better for your because they slow the absorption of sugars, which remove cholesterol and slow down your digestion to keep you fuller for longer.
Think of Fiber like a broom for your colon. It sweeps out everything and naturally helps with digestion, keeping you fuller for longer, and prevents chronic disease.
Protein is the hype man of macronutrients. People get pumped about protein, and for good reason, it helps build muscle mass and repair tissue, so you can build strength and recover faster. Not only that but an adequate amount of protein in your diet will help you optimize body composition
RELATED ARTICLE 5 Reasons Why Whey Protein Isolate Is The Best Source Of Protein
But, just like every other macronutrient, not all protein is created equal. I know you’re sick of hearing it. But! It’s true. That being said, it’s important that you obtain protein from natural sources, as opposed to getting it in processed and preserved food. Just because the manufacturer claims, that it has 14 grams of protein, processed food is still, processed food. Most fortified foods, cereals, and packaged foods that claim it has protein will derive the protein from cheap sources like soy. When you’re looking at a buying something with protein, look for whey protein, whey protein isolate, hydrolyzed whey protein, egg white protein, hemp protein, milk protein, or casein.
RELATED ARTICLE Why Whey Protein Isolate Is Better Than Whey Concentrate
16. Vitamins & Minerals
Vitamins and minerals are essential for the function of the human body. Most nutrition facts panels show four nutrients, Vitamin A, Vitamin C, calcium, and Iron as well as their recommended DV. The new panel will replace Vitamin A, and C with Vitamin D and Potassium.
Most processed or packaged foods are usually fortified, meaning they are stripped of any natural occurring vitamins and replaced with synthetic vitamins, which can be toxic. The best way to get vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants is through the fresh foods that don’t come with a nutrition label. Or a high-quality Multivitamin supplement, like the one from Swolverine.
RELATED ARTICLE Do You Really Need To Take A Multivitamin?
How To Read A Nutrition Label: Takeaway
Learning how to read a nutrition label is crucial when you’re trying to live a healthier well-rounded lifestyle. Marketing claims and packaging standards are very lenient, so it’s easy to look past nutrition labels when certain packaged foods claim that their “healthy”, “natural”, and “high in protein, and fiber.” Your best bet, it to turn any packaged food around and scan the nutrition facts panel, so you can have a better understanding of what that product really has in it.
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Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. “Labeling & Nutrition - Changes to the Nutrition Facts Label.” U S Food and Drug Administration Home Page, Center for Drug Evaluation and Research, www.fda.gov/Food/GuidanceRegulation/GuidanceDocumentsRegulatoryInformation/LabelingNutrition/ucm385663.htm.
Siri-tarino PW, Sun Q, Hu FB, Krauss RM. Meta-analysis of prospective cohort studies evaluating the association of saturated fat with cardiovascular disease. Am J Clin Nutr. 2010;91(3):535-46.
Ravnskov, Uffe et al. “Lack of an association or an inverse association between low-density-lipoprotein cholesterol and mortality in the elderly: a systematic review” BMJ open vol. 6,6 e010401. 2 Jun. 2016, doi:10.1136/bmjopen-2015-010401
Kearns, Cristin E et al. “Sugar Industry and Coronary Heart Disease Research: A Historical Analysis of Internal Industry Documents” JAMinternal medicine 176,11 (2016): 1680-1685.