Today I’m continuing how to read a food nutrition label. I know you’re probably thinking why should you care other than whether the product is gluten-free or not, but if you are watching your…salt, sugar, calorie, carbohydrate, or fat intake, it is important to know what all that information on that label means.

Not All Carbohydrates Are Created Equal

 When it comes to carbohydrates, some are better for you than others.  Let’s be clear – there are some out there that will tell you need carbohydrates to have energy and to be healthy, and that any diet that tells you to eliminate them completely is unhealthy. That is not entirely true. There are more and more studies being done about Ketogenic and low carb diets being very healthy, but that is a conversation for another day. In the meantime, if you would like to look into a Ketogenic diet this book is a great place to start: here

A food label will break down carbohydrates into two categories – fiber and sugars.  You need both.  However, many people don’t have enough fiber in their diets.  You want to look for foods that are high in this nutrient. Fiber helps you to lower your cholesterol and helps your digestive system to be more regular. This is the healthier type of carbohydrate.

The other category, sugars, is what you need to watch if you’re concerned about diabetes.  Depending on your situation with blood sugar, you’ll want to limit how many grams of sugar you get in your diet.

When it comes to calories, every gram of carbohydrates contains 4 calories. So if you want to know how many calories in the food come from carbohydrates, you can multiply your carbohydrate grams by four.  Then you can look at the total calories in the serving to determine the percentage of calories that come from them.

The Purpose of Protein

Your body must have protein to build structures.  Most of the structures inside you consist of protein and in order to have the building blocks to repair cells and develop muscles, you’ll need to eat food that has this important molecule.

A food label will tell you the number of grams of protein in your food.  You’ll want to look for foods that are high in protein.  Foods that have a lot of protein include nuts, meats, whole grain foods, and dairy products.

 The Facts About Fats

Food labels will also give you information about fats.  In the past, health practitioners told patients to avoid fat altogether.  But it turns out that modern science doesn’t support that type of diet.  You actually need fats just like you need other molecules in your food.

The two major categories of fats are unsaturated and saturated.  Unsaturated fats come from plant sources.  At room temperature unsaturated fats stay liquid.  These are considered healthy fats.  You need them to help keep your skin and other organs healthy.

Unsaturated fats also help lower “bad” cholesterol and raise “good” cholesterol in your blood.  This helps to protect your heart and prevent problems such as heart disease and stroke.  They also help your digestive system to run smoothly.

Saturated fats come from animal fats.  These are solid at room temperature and are considered unhealthy fats.  It has been believed for some time that they contribute to high cholesterol, clogged arteries and can ultimately lead to heart disease, stroke, and other disorders, but new research is finding this to not be completely true. Some saturated fat may, in fact, be necessary for healthy function of the body.

Speaking of cholesterol, you can also find the amount of cholesterol in a serving of food on the label.  Cholesterol amounts become important when you’re trying to eat a heart healthy diet.  If you’re trying to lower cholesterol, you’ll want to pay attention to this part of the label.

Trans fats are a category of fats that come from altering the chemical structure of an unsaturated fat. They are also called hydrogenated fats because the process of taking a liquid unsaturated fat to a solid trans fat involves adding hydrogen atoms to the molecules.

For many years it was thought that trans fats were as healthy as unsaturated fats, but that has been disproved.  In fact, trans fats are actually more harmful than, and actually worse for you than, saturated fats.  Because of the bad press trans fats many food manufacturers are removing it from their products.

The United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) now requires that trans fats are listed on food labels.  I would recommend avoiding any food that has trans fats in it.  These fats have no nutritional value and are in fact very harmful for you.

 Sodium Safety

Another nutrient that food labels provide information about is sodium. Sodium is the fancy, scientific term for salt.  If you have normal blood pressure you probably don’t pay too much attention to salt.  But if you’re suffering from high blood pressure, you can’t ignore it.

Sodium causes your body to hold onto water and in turn raises your blood pressure.  High blood pressure is a leading risk factor for heart disease and stroke.  So if you have this issue, you need to check the labels.  Speak with your doctor about what a healthy amount of sodium is for you. Then you’ll want to look for labels that have low amounts of sodium or are even free from it.  Some foods are labeled as “low sodium” but you still need to look at the label and see where it fits in with your needs.

 Eating Vitamins and Minerals

I believe that most people could use a multivitamin and mineral supplement each day. In an ideal world we would get all of our vitamins and minerals through the food we eat, but a lot of our food just doesn’t have as many vitamins and minerals as we need.

Food labels will give you an idea of what nutrients can be found in a specific food.  Look for foods that are high in vitamins and minerals such as calcium, vitamin C, vitamin A, potassium, and beta-carotene.

 Making Time for Reading Food Labels

When you’re new to reading food labels, it can see overwhelming.  But the more you do it, the easier it becomes.  You’ll also have your “go-to” foods that you can just pick up without revisiting the label every time.

Plan to spend some extra time at the grocery store when you’re paying more attention to food labels.  Pay attention to what nutrients you’re looking to limit and what you need to add to your diet.  Before you shop, make a list of what you need to get.

Then, as you’re shopping make a list of additional foods that you’d like to incorporate into your diet.  You may also want to make a list of foods you’d like to avoid.  Perhaps something you’ve always loved has way more cholesterol than you can afford.  Spend some time looking for a substitute that’s on the healthier side.

 Understanding 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 of ingredients can be very helpful for determining if a food is something you want to eat or not.

Ingredients you definitely want to avoid include:

  • Wheat
  • Barley
  • Rye
  • Most Oats (unless it says certified gluten free)
  • Malt of any kind

Other ingredients you may want to remove from your diet are:

  • Corn syrup (highly processed sugar)
  • High Fructose Corn Syrup
  • Hydrogenated oils
  • Monosodium glutamate (MSG)
  • Artificial coloring
  • Artificial sweeteners (sucralose, aspartame, saccharin)

Ingredients that are not natural and come from chemical processing are generally not good for your body.  A rule of thumb to follow is that if you can’t pronounce the ingredient, you probably shouldn’t eat it.

Once you start reading food labels, you’ll be surprised to find out how many additives are in processed foods.  While some foods with labels are healthy for you, there are a lot of foods that come in cans, boxes, and bags that contain harmful ingredients.

 Foods Without Labels

 When it comes to nutrition, the best thing you can do is look for foods that don’t require labels.  These are foods such as fruits, vegetables, and meats. In other words Whole Foods, and I don’t mean the grocery store chain.  The less processed your food is, the healthier it will be.

Other foods have labels, but are also close to their natural state.  This includes food such as:

  • Milk
  • Yogurt
  • Natural peanut butter
  • Natural cheese
  • Butter

When you’re shopping, using food labels can help you to make good choices.  Look for foods that are high in nutrition and low on saturated fats, artificial chemicals, cholesterol, and processed sugars.  Keep in mind that just because a food is labeled low fat, doesn’t mean that it is the healthiest option. Low fat foods generally contain more sugar, salt and fillers to make up for the flavor loss when they remove the fat.

I hope this has helped clarify the mysteries of reading food labels.