How To Read Nutrition Labels
A guide on what to look for, and how to recognize marketing gimmicks on your favorite foods and food products.
At the local grocery stores, you can usually find many manufacturers of the same type of food, especially the boxed cereal aisle where Kellogg's, Post and other brands are competing everyday with who has the healthiest, lowest sugar cereal, bars, breads, and other products on the market. Unfortunately, many manufacturers have forgotten about the consumer and have led them down the deception aisle. The first thing to be aware of on a food label is the serving size- all the other specification like calories, fat, sodium, etc. are based off of the serving size. Of course, you can get only 1-2 grams of fat in some products if the serving size is the size of a quarter. We know good and well that many of us will eat 3-4 times that amount and increase the amount of fat to about 8-10 grams per serving. Depending on the other ingredients and what the food is, this could be a lot of extra nutrients/calories for one (true) serving. The calories listed are for the serving size only- not the entire package. Of course, some items may say serving size: 1 bar or 2 - 1” pieces. Please be aware that the serving size is very important for you to determine how many calories are in that meal. For the most accurate serving size measurements, go with the gram measurement. Even if the serving is listed by volume and not by weight, there will usually be the weight equivalent listed on the label as well (in parenthesis).
Another thing to keep an eye out for is false marketing on packaging. Claims like 'high protein', 'high fiber', 'whole grain' or 'low calorie' and even 'healthy' litter the aisles of grocery stores. Without any context, these words mean next to nothing. For a food that's really 'high protein', it should have at least 1 gram of protein for every 10 calories. Some items may seem like they have high protein when looking at ONLY the protein content. But when you compare the protein content to the carb/fat content, or the overall calorie content, the protein content can actually be pretty low in comparison (ex: a 'high protein' cereal with 10 grams of protein per serving, but 45 grams of carbs and 6 grams of fat).
Carbohydrates, fats and proteins are listed by the weight in grams. For example, 5 grams of protein in one serving would have 20 calories for that serving: 1 gram of protein = 4 calories
1 gram of carbohydrates = 4 calories
1 gram of fat = 9 calories
This also brings me to caloric density of foods. You can eat a diet composed of entirely 'healthy' foods and still not be eating correctly. As seen above, fats are the highest calorie nutrient, so small portions of foods with high fat content will rack up the calories very quickly, meaning you can't eat as much for the same caloric value of something that might be lower in fat. This is also why things labeled as 'low-carb' 'keto-friendly' and 'low sugar' are not always the best option. Ingredients on the food label are listed in order of their weight per serving. For example, an item with high-fructose corn syrup as the first ingredient indicates that high fructose corn syrup is the most abundant ingredient in the recipe. Fructose is a sugar and sugar has 4 grams of carbohydrate (in the form sugars) in just one measly teaspoon. This means high sugar foods are typically very calorically dense as well. Sugar is not necessarily to be avoided, but too much sugar (if unused) will be stored as fat, just like any other nutrient.
If you are trying to avoid excess fats/sugars due to pre-existing medical conditions (diabetes, hypertension, obesity, etc), food manufacturers and labels can also make it very hard to determine when you are making the best choice for your condition.
Remember, when reading a food label, there are many ways for a manufacturer to list fats and sugars. Here are a few examples: FATS:
-hydrogenated vegetable fat/oil
-high fructose corn syrup
Foods with higher fat/sugar contents won't necessarily set you back if you eat them in context with your overall caloric intake. For those with general body composition goals (and NOT pre-existing medical conditions) the biggest problem with high fat/sugar foods is that they are very high in calories, which can easily lead to overshooting on overall caloric intake, even when eaten in seemingly reasonable portions.
To determine the fat content in calories of a particular food, here is an example: 1 serving of Jiff peanut butter = 2 TBSP (32 grams). Calories = 190, Fat = 16 grams 1 gram of fat = 9 calories 16 X 9 = 144 calories in fat. 144 out of 190 calories is a pretty high percentage of calories coming from fat.
This is not to say you CAN'T have 32 grams (190 calories) of peanut butter and still reach stay within your caloric goals for the day, but it's something to keep an eye on.
In conclusion, do not be a victim of all the manufacturer and labeling hype out there. All the low-fat, low sodium and fat-free products could still be causing consumers to add unwanted pounds to their bodies. Just because it says “FAT-FREE” does not mean that it is necessarily a better option for you and your goals. You still have to burn more calories than you take in in order to lose body fat.