Unless you live off the land, you’re probably grocery shopping at a supermarket.
Next time you’re there, take a moment to study the floor plan. Have you ever noticed how fresh produce – fruit, vegetables, meat, and dairy – are located along the outer walls?
And our staples – beans, flour, rice, and spices – and all food packaged and sold in bags, bottles, boxes, and jars are in the aisles.
When I had to eat clean for two years because of food intolerances, other than a quick dash down the spice and starch aisles, I shopped along the perimeter.
Later, re-introducing old foods back into my diet forced me to re-think old shopping habits. Packaging that used to be convenient and familiar had to have their food nutrition labels scrutinized.
Except, I didn’t really understand the labels.
And, not only did I not understand them, it took forever to read them and then compare with another similar product.
My old normal had been: groceries for four in a cart checked out and packed in the car within 45 minutes and here I was . . . 60 minutes later and halfway down aisle 3.
Learning to read food labels is hard work and can be confusing, so I hope this article helps.
Why We Need to Know How to Read a Label
Studies have linked many causes of inflammatory diseases with food and discovered our relationship with food is often the difference between good and poor health.
Nutrition labels are designed to help shoppers choose food with fewer calories, salt, sugar and more fibre and vitamins.
For the first time in twenty years, both the White House and Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recommended changes to all food labels. Beginning in 2016 companies must emphasize any added sugars and highlight not only the calories but the serving size.
What’s in a Label?
A food nutrition label is divided into three bold boxes or compartments. The first is the title: Nutrition Facts, and directly beneath is the serving size.
The next two boxes break down both macro and micronutrients found in food. Both types of nutrients are necessary for daily repair and maintenance of our body.
In the second box, you’ll find the three macronutrients; proteins, carbohydrates, and fats.
And while more than 30 micronutrients are considered ‘essential’ for our bodies, the third box usually lists up to nine.
At a minimum, food labels should include:
- Serving or portion size
- Total calories per serving
- Grams of fat in both trans-fat and saturated fat
- Milligrams of cholesterol
- Milligrams of sodium
- Milligrams of potassium
- Grams of total carbohydrates broken down into fibre and sugar
- Grams of protein
- Vitamins and minerals
Then, either below or beside these, you’ll find a list of every food additive and ingredient used from most to least.
This is helpful for anyone with a food allergy or sensitivity. For example, if you were sensitive to black pepper and trying to reduce chemical overload your better food choice would have them listed at the end or, even better, not at all.
Now, let’s look at each of those categories.
Serving or Portion Size
Located directly below the header, you’ll see serving or portion sizes. Tucked in close to the header, these are easily missed on labels. You’ll see for this one, the Per 2 tsp. (10ml), means that for every 2 teaspoons you consume, your body will get everything listed below.
First on the list are calories, the one we often use to make a decision.
But let’s say brand A’s calories were 80 and brand B’s calories were 100. If calories were our biggest concern, without a second glance, we’d probably purchase brand A.
Yet, if we noticed the serving size, brand B is the better choice, and here’s why.
Your recipe needs 3 tsp.
Brand A’s calories are 80 and the label’s serving size is 1 tsp. Total calories for this recipe: 240
Brand B’s calories are 100 and the label’s serving size is 2 tsp. Total calories for this recipe: 150
Once you know the number of servings, it’s time to move down the label. First on the list is calories.
What exactly are Calories?
Calories measure the energy that food produces. So if we ate a chocolate, fruit, and nut muesli bar, we’d have more energy than if we ate an apple to skip for an hour.
Did you know a calorie is also used for measuring non-foods that produce energy, for example, a lump of coal?
What’s the difference between a calorie and an ‘empty’ calorie?
To understand the difference between the two let’s see first, how a calorie is measured.
A calorie is the measurement of energy needed to raise the temperature of 1 kilogram of water by 1 degree Celsius.
Our bodies constantly need and use calories to move, breathe, think, and digest food. Even our heart needs calories to help pump oxygenated blood around our body.
For a calorie to count in food, our body needs to do two things: absorb the ingredients and then convert them to energy.
What that means is, the fat, protein, carbohydrates, and sugar we eat, have calories.
And the minerals and vitamins we eat, have no calories. We absorb them but instead of providing energy, they maintain organ health at the cellular level.
And we eat fibre which we can’t absorb so it too has no calories. Sometimes fibre often uses, or takes, energy while being digested, which is why raw diets are popular.
Now, let’s looks at sugar to explore what an empty calorie means.
Sugar makes food taste great. With a quick dash, drizzle, or sprinkle, sweet or savoury dishes move from an ohh to Ahhh!
A discovery in the mid-1700’s found sugar could be made from beets, yet it took the Napoleonic wars to create a shortage before mass production was considered.
When sugar became affordable for everyone, the demand increased.
Companies looked to other sources for sweeteners and in the early 1970’s they found corn, one of the first plant’s humans domesticated 10,000 years ago. Using the starch in corn, scientists converted glucose to fructose and a high-fructose syrup was born.
All sugar supply and demand problems were solved!
Except around the world people and livestock still needed to eat fresh, frozen and dried, whole and ground, corn, and crops were susceptible to weather and pests.
Through genetics, scientists modified the corn until plants not only become more resilient but yielded more corn kernels per cob.
One of the biggest health debates today revolves around high-fructose corn syrup. Why?
Because high-fructose corn syrup provides energy but has little to no nutritional value for our body. This is known as an ‘empty’ calorie.
That seems straightforward so let’s explore a more subtle ‘empty’ calorie to show how complicated nutrition is.
Q: What do you feel is the better fat choice: avocado or grass-fed, organic, unsalted butter?
A: Replacing a smear of avocado with an equal sized pat of unsalted butter might double the number of calories, but fats from plants are the good kind.
Plant-based fats are easier to digest in the gut and our brain needs good fat to help transport vital nutrition in and waste products out, through its barrier!
Grass-fed, organic, unsalted butter is the better choice of all the butter and is loaded with nutrients, proteins, and vitamins an avocado doesn’t have.
However, butter contains saturated fats which are harder on our body’s digestive system if it’s already struggling.
My thoughts are, at the end of the day the best decision is based on your personal health and always, an educated awareness.
If poor health means you must eliminate all saturated fats, then an avocado is your better choice.
If you are dairy-free or vegan, then an avocado is your better choice.
And if you have no health concerns, try an avocado because they are scrumptious and make a tasty change.
Why we need calories
While our heart beats, our lungs inflate and deflate, and our body breaks down nutrients to help replace new organ cells and flush away worn or dead cells, we’re burning calories.
How much we need is based on several factors such as our height and weight, our activity level and metabolism but a reasonable average is 2,000 calories a day.
I’m saying average because there is no definite measurement. Some of us are more active, taller, still growing, or have a slower burn rate.
Good Fats Versus Bad Fats
We used to hear; avoid fats as much as possible, but studies no longer support this. In fact, we’ve learned fats are more necessary than ever.
Not only do fats provide energy, but are essential for delivering fat-soluble vitamins and keeping our skin supple enough to maintain its barrier against bacteria.
Of our total calorie count, no more than 30% should come from fat sources but with the convenience of fast food, many people are consuming much more than that.
The Good and Bad of Fats
There are two major types of fats; saturated and unsaturated . . . and then there are trans fats.
Saturated, or bad fats, are from animal sources such as cow, goat, sheep, and yak.
They contribute to higher cholesterol levels, clogged arteries, high blood pressure, and lead to possible heart disease, stroke, and other disorders.
At room temperature, saturated fats remain solid.
Did you know in Nepal, the quality of a yak herd’s milk is measured by the butter it produces.
Unsaturated or good fats come from all plant sources, such as coconut, olive pits, nuts, seeds, and avocado.
Unsaturated fats help lower “bad” cholesterol and raise the “good” cholesterol, protect our heart and reduce the risk of heart disease and stroke. They’re also easier to digest, causing less overall stress on our system.
At room temperature, unsaturated fats remain liquid.
Trans fats have been chemically altered from unsaturated fat sources and were once thought to be as healthy as unsaturated fats.
Later research showed trans fats were even more harmful than saturated fats. Food manufacturers are removing it from their products and the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requires that any trans fats be listed on food labels.
Note: Trans fats are also called hydrogenated fats because the process of making a liquid unsaturated fat to a solid trans fat involves adding hydrogen atoms to the molecules.
Cholesterol is transported by blood around our body because it is needed to help build healthy cells. However, because it is waxy it can create a build up and clog arteries which in turn can lead to a heart attack or stroke. High levels of cholesterol can often be prevented through a change of diet which has less fat and more fibre.
Because many people must lower their cholesterol, it is listed below the fats.
Whenever you see sodium on a label, think, salt. Used to enhance flavour and act as a preservative, salt is actually equal parts sodium and chloride and has the chemical equation NaCl.
By now you’re probably wondering, why doesn’t a food label just call it for what it is – salt?
Because sodium is the bad-for-us component of salt. Sodium causes our body to hold onto water which then raises blood pressure.
And left ignored, high blood pressure, also known as hypertension, affects millions of people each year. As a silent killer, high blood pressure is the leading risk factor for heart disease and stroke.
If you suffer from high blood pressure, you can not ignore this on a food label.
Note of caution: Some foods state, “low sodium” on their packaging, but please still check the label! Some brands will naturally be lower than others and if this is critical for your good health, don’t ever presume the word, ‘Low’ means it’s the lowest on the shelf.
Potassium, one of seven essential minerals, deserves its own space on the food label because of the major role it plays in our body.
Its primary function is to regulate fluid and help the heartbeat while maintaining strong bones and muscles.
A diet without any form of carbohydrates is, in fact, an unhealthy diet.
Carbohydrates have had a bad rap and there is still much to learn about their role in maintaining a healthy body.
Nutrition food labels break down carbohydrates into two categories – fibre and sugars. Our body needs both, just not in excess.
Many people don’t consume enough fibre in their diet and yet it helps you feel fuller for longer, lowers cholesterol, regulates blood sugar levels, and removes waste more efficiently while giving your intestines a good scrub.
Fibre is found in whole grains such as wheat, oats, beans and pulses, not to mention vegetables and fruit.
There are two types: soluble and insoluble. Both have very different roles and benefit the body in many different ways.
The other category of carbohydrates are the sugars.
There’s no denying it, any sweetener whether it’s honey, maple syrup, or coconut sugar smooths out flavours, makes food ‘more-ish’ and reveals the complexity of other spices.
But anyone with diabetes needs to pay particular attention to this section on the label in order to limit their daily grams of sugar.
Did you know sugar currently has 56 different names? You may find this table worth looking at.
Did you also know there are seven types of white sugar, five types of brown sugar, and two types of liquid sugar?
Your body must have protein to repair cells and build muscle fibres and studies recommended eating three smaller portions spread over the day rather than one large serving once a day.
Food labels list protein in grams and the higher this value, the more satisfied you’ll feel for longer. Foods high in protein include nuts, meats, whole grain foods, and dairy products.
If you ever get that 3 pm fat feeling, instead of grabbing a chocolate bar, try a slice of cheese or meat, a handful of nuts, an egg or a small lentil soup and feel the difference!
That’s protein at it’s finest!
Do you see a solid dark line separates the macronutrients and more at risk health factors, from the micronutrients?
I do read these and here’s why. If I’m feeling low on Vitamin C, I’ll boost my salad with a serving of chia seeds (11%) and mulberries (110%) over hemp hearts and cacao nibs which both have 0%.
If I need more fibre, I’ll choose chia seeds (32%) and mulberries (12%) over either cacao nibs or hemp hearts (both 8%)
If I needed a protein shake after a workout, I’ll choose hemp hearts ((9g) and either chia seeds or mulberries (both 3g) over cacao nibs (1g)
And if I have a chocolate craving, I’m going for those cacao nibs!
Eating Vitamins and Minerals
While most people could use a multivitamin each day, the better way to get your vitamins and minerals is through food.
If you take a multivitamin, still read the label! There are plant-based multivitamins which are not synthetic.
I prefer to get my daily dose of vitamins and minerals from whole food as much as possible and then top up with a multivitamin whenever I feel flat or low in energy.
Make Time to Read Food Labels
Food labels can seem overwhelming. I’ve been there and know just how frustrating this process is!
Here’s a tip to help you gather your optimum “go-to” foods list. With this, you’ll quickly pick up groceries each time you shop.
– Ahead of time, know what food or ingredients you need to avoid altogether, minimize, or increase and make a list. If possible, list ingredients by their aisle and there may be some aisles you can avoid.
For the first few times, plan to spend extra time at the grocery store (I wish I’d thought of this!) because you’ll need to pay more attention to food labels.
As you shop, note the foods you’ll miss with all your heart. If there is no available healthy choice, do a little research at another store.
Last but not least. . . let’s look at ingredients
The other list you’ll find on a nutrition label – or near it – is a list of ingredients. Ingredients on products are listed in order from greatest amount to least amount in the food. This list is also helpful for determining if a food is something you could eat – or not.
My digestive system can’t tolerate flax seeds or canola oil, both of which are in ‘healthy’ food, so I’m a big ingredient reader.
Some ingredients you should avoid as much as possible include:
- Corn syrup (highly processed sugar)
- Hydrogenated oils
- Monosodium glutamate (MSG)
- Artificial colour
- Artificial flavourings
- Artificial sweeteners (sucralose, aspartame, saccharin)
- Ingredients that are chemically processed.
A good rule of thumb is, if I can’t pronounce the ingredient or imagine what it looks like, I probably shouldn’t eat it.
Once you start reading food nutrition labels, you might be surprised just how many additives we consume without realizing.
What About Food Without Labels?
These are the foods you want to load up on whenever you can! Fruit and vegetables are the least processed of all foods.
Note also that some foods have labels, but are close to their natural state:
- Dairy: some yoghurts, cheese, butter, milk and cream
- Meat, poultry, and fish (unless they’re fresh then they won’t have labels)
- Oats, puffed rice or Kamut cereal
- Nut butter, some jams, honey
Use food labels to help make healthy, educated choices every time.
And here’s a final hint: look for food HIGH in nutrition and LOW on saturated fats, artificial chemicals, cholesterol, and processed sugars.