An easy to understand guide to reading a nutrition label so you can start making educated food choices TODAY!
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Unfortunately, a majority of the population does not know how to properly read or understand a nutrition facts table, and many do not even bother (or care).
Maybe you have a vague idea of what you are supposed to avoid or look for, but you don't really know why.
To the average person with no health background, a nutrition facts table is not much more than a jumble of words and numbers. Society has taught us to watch what we eat in terms of calories, so for many that first number is the one and only number they glance at. There is a reason diet soda and other artificially sweetened foods are popular. Remove the sugar and you have fewer calories. But what is really in these foods? A topic for another post!
Read on for some quick tips to make better choices next time you are in the supermarket, with an understanding of WHY.
Okay, here it is, your average (albeit empty) nutrition facts table.
This is basically how much of the product the company feels is one "serving," and is the amount of food the rest of the numbers are based upon. It is completely up to the company and can vary significantly, so when comparing items, always look at the serving size. One item might look like it is healthier in terms of calories, total sugar, salt, protein, etc., but the listed serving size could be half. Serving sizes can be as small as a quarter of a teaspoon to as large as a few cups, so checking this number will give you an idea of how many "servings" you will likely consume. "Servings per container" (or bag, can, jar, etc.) is also sometimes listed, which can help you eyeball what this amount really looks like.
% Daily Value
This number is based upon the average 2000 calorie diet, assuming we need no more than 65 grams of fat (max 20 g saturated), 350 grams of carbohydrate (including at least 25 grams of fibre), 2400 mg of sodium, and 300 mg of cholesterol (as dictated by Health Canada). Iron, calcium, vitamin A and C and any other vitamins or minerals the company wants to include are also listed in terms of daily value. Keep in mind everyone’s calorie needs are slightly different, and young children do not need the same number of calories as adults, making the % daily value inaccurate when feeding them most foods.
Ever wonder where this number comes from? It is actually a simple calculation. Each gram of carbohydrate and protein contains 4 kilocalories (calories for short). Each gram of fat contains 9. So simply add (grams of carbohydrate x 4) + (grams of protein x 4) + (grams of fat x 9) to get total calories. There is no real reason to do the calculation oneself, but now you know how this number is derived.
Basically calories = energy for our bodies to function. The more energy we expel the more calories we need. Consume too many calories, they are stored as fat. Consume too few calories, we lack energy and start to burn fat. According to Health Canada, the average adult needs roughly 2000 calories per day. Rough indeed as men generally need more than women and individuals who are more physically active, whether it be through their employment or extracurricular activities, expend more energy and also need more calories.
Also of note, alcohol has 7 calories per gram which is measured depending upon the alcohol by volume (ABV).
Saturated Fat vs. Unsaturated Fat vs. Trans Fat
The great fat debate continues, although the consensus on trans fat (usually listed as partially hydrogenated oil) is out and so is it, sort of. In Canada, as of September 2018, trans fats have been banned, however, retailers have been given up to 2 years to clear their inventory. Basically trans fat is, or was, made through an industrial process that changes the chemical makeup of unsaturated fats to be solid at room temperature, which improves the flavour, texture, mouthfeel, etc. Foods most often containing trans fats are those that are highly processed, such as chips, crackers, cookies, deep-fried foods, and pastries. Study after study has proven that trans fats contribute directly to heart disease. There is no debate about this.
So what about saturated and unsaturated fat?
Very simply put, unsaturated fat is liquid at room temperature and typically found in more plant-based foods whereas saturated fat is solid at room temperature and typically found in animal-based products such as meat and dairy, as well as some oils. Most research suggests that limiting saturated fats in our diet is beneficial to our health, which is why health Canada recommends no more than a third of our daily fat consumption be saturated fat. However, there still seems to be some debate about this. Some more recent studies have demonstrated no adverse health effects related to higher saturated fat intake. It is possible that the negative health consequences of trans fats have been indistinguishable from saturated fats in the past, based upon the average North American diet. With the new ban on trans fats, the truth about saturated fats may become more clear.
Some people avoid fat like the plague while others swear by their high fat, high protein diet. I believe in everything in moderation, and always try to make sure most of the fat I consume is in healthy whole foods (nuts, seeds, avocado, etc. as I do not consume meat or dairy), rather than processed foods. For now, Health Canada recommends that approximately 25-30% of our daily calories should come from fat, predominately unsaturated.
If you consume animal products regularly, be mindful of how much cholesterol you are getting from foods such as eggs, seafood, fatty meats, and dairy products.
Simply put, there is good cholesterol (HDL) and bad cholesterol (LDL). Bad cholesterol is consumed via animal products and good cholesterol is made by the body. Good cholesterol levels are higher in healthier individuals who have a normal BMI, are physically active, don’t smoke or drink in excess and eat a healthy diet low in saturated fat. When you hear the term “high cholesterol” it is in reference to the bad, LDL cholesterol and a risk factor for heart attack and stroke, among other things. Taking medication to lower your bad cholesterol without changing your diet and lifestyle is simply a band-aid solution. Try to choose foods with little to no cholesterol more often.
AKA salt. Always check this number when you buy any sort of packaged/processed food item, whether it be pasta sauce, crackers, chips, soups, cheese, canned beans, granola bars, etc. To simplify, I usually just look at the %DV. The lower the number the better, but you will be hard-pressed to find under 5% sodium in any processed foods. For kids especially, try to feed them whole, unprocessed foods more often and when choosing packaged foods, be mindful of the sodium content. If there is ever a low sodium option, choose that one. Compare the labels (make sure you compare serving size too). Pasta sauce and canned soups are loaded with sodium, you will be lucky to find one under 20%. Making your own foods from scratch whenever possible is a great way to significantly reduce the amount of sodium. Our bodies do need sodium to function, but a majority of the population consumes too much, not too little. Too much sodium in our diet can lead to increased blood pressure and risk of stroke, heart attack, and kidney disease. If you are consuming too much sodium it usually means you are eating too many processed foods, not too much table salt.
As mentioned, each gram of carbohydrate equates to 4 calories. Health Canada recommends that as much as 70% of our calories be from carbohydrates. There are simple and complex carbohydrates, which are not identified in the nutrition facts table making this number somewhat irrelevant for most people. The two values under carbohydrates, fibre and sugar, can help identify the type of carbohydrates, as can the ingredient list. Complex carbohydrates (good) generally contain higher levels of fibre, while simple carbohydrates (not so good) often contain higher levels of sugar and are broken down similarly. Foods such as breads, cereals, rice, and pasta are high in carbohydrates. Refined foods such as white rice and flour contain mostly simple carbohydrates whereas whole grains contain more complex carbohydrates.
When it comes to fibre, the more the better! Fibre is associated with a number of health benefits and also helps keep you full longer. Most of the population doesn’t consume enough fibre. Generally, the more processed something is, the less fibre it has. Whole grains, legumes, nuts/seeds, fruits, and vegetables have the highest levels of fibre. Animal protein does not have any. According to Health Canada, it is recommended that we get at least 25 grams of fibre per day.
Less sugar is always better if the food is in any way processed. Like salt, sugar is in most processed foods regardless of what they are. Sugars naturally occur in fruits and vegetables and research shows that it should not be a concern when consuming it in this form (fresh, frozen, cooked or dried). It is when it is processed that it poses a health threat. "Sugar" as it is listed on the nutrition facts label, does not distinguish. You need to look at the ingredient list to find out the source of sugar. For example, an apple has approximately 10 grams of sugar, as does 5 dried unsweetened apricots and 2 Oreo cookies. The first two have naturally occurring sugar that has not been in any way processed and for most people should not be a concern. The same can not be said for Oreos.
Ten grams of sugar doesn’t seem like much, but It equates to 2.5 teaspoons of table sugar! Be especially mindful of the sugar content of the snacks you are feeding your kids. Foods such as yogurt and granola bars can be packed with sugar and marketed as healthy. Chocolate chip Cliff bars, for example, list brown rice syrup (sugar) as the first ingredient, have 22 grams of sugar per bar and contains over 30 ingredients. On the other hand, a peanut butter chocolate chip Lara bar has 17 grams of sugar but contains only 4 ingredients with dates (super healthy!) as the only source of sugar. Added sugars go by a ton of different names and can sometimes be hard to identify. Common names include high fructose corn syrup, cane sugar, brown rice syrup, agave, dextrose, molasses, fructose, and maltodextrin, among a long list of others. If you don’t see any form of sugar listed it is possible that it is disguised as something you don't recognize. For more information on sugar check out the post Refined Sugar: The Sneaky Truth.
Each gram of protein contains 4 calories. Health Canada recommends that around 20% of our calories come from protein, which is easily achieved by most people. Meat is high in protein, but so are beans, nuts, and seeds. Even vegetables have protein. To calculate your optimal protein needs, multiply your lean body weight (not total body weight) in kilograms by .08. For most women this averages out to 46 grams and men, 56 grams. Most North Americans consume way too much protein (learn more about this here).
Vitamins and Minerals
Most vitamins and minerals come from unprocessed fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, beans and whole grains, which for the most part don’t have food labels. For items that do have labels, by law, Vitamin A, Vitamin C, Calcium and Iron must be listed, and others are optional. However, nutrition labels generally don't disclose the health benefits beyond vitamins and minerals, such as antioxidants and phytonutrients. Eating a diet high in a variety of fruits and vegetables and low in processed foods is the best way to guarantee you are getting enough of all of these. Taking supplements is nowhere near as effective as consuming them at the source.
Traditionally milk has been promoted as the primary source of calcium, mostly due to advertising by the dairy industry. However most non-dairy milk is fortified with similar levels of calcium, and you can also find calcium in plant-based foods such as green leafy vegetables (broccoli, kale, and spinach), nut/seeds, beans/lentils, edamame/tofu and a number of other foods that have been fortified. According to Health Canada, the recommended daily intake of calcium is 110 mg. Calcium is most important to maintain strong bones, but also protect against a number of other health complications.
Health Canada recommends we consume 14 mg of iron per day. Iron is found in the highest concentration in animal-based products (meat and eggs) but is also found in foods such as beans, lentils, dried fruit, fortified grain products, and vegetables such as spinach. Vitamin C has been proven to help improve iron absorption, so eating foods higher in vitamin C, such as citrus fruits or broccoli, with iron-rich foods is recommended. Some symptoms of low iron include extreme fatigue, dizziness, heart palpitations, and restless legs. Women are more likely to be iron deficient and particularly those of childbearing age who consume little to no animal products. If you think you might have an iron deficiency see your doctor to get tested. Taking a supplement is not recommended unless prescribed by a physician as too much Iron can also cause health complications.
Always check the ingredient list when you buy packaged/processed foods not in their original state. By law, ingredients are listed in order by volume. Red flags to look for include sugar (how early in the list and the type), the source of any fats/oils, the number of ingredients (the fewer the better), and ingredients that you don't recognize or sound like chemical compounds such as sodium nitrite or butylated hydroxyanisole. With names like that, how safe can they really be to consume? Stay tuned for a post all about food additives.
I know what you are thinking…
”I don’t have time to scrutinize each label like this!.” Probably not. But once you understand what everything means and get in the habit of checking the label it will be quick. You will also discover a handful of go-to foods that you don't need to repeatedly check.
There is also no need to look at all the values for each item. What to focus on depends on what type of food it is, which you will get the hang of with experience.
Buying fresh fruits and vegetables more often, foods that for the most part don't have a nutrition label, is always your best bet in terms of nutrition and will save you heaps of time at the supermarket.