Label Reading 101
Food has become complicated, there is no two ways about it. I’m not one for counting calories, and although I am a big advocate for real-food-first, I realize that is not always the first step for everyone on their nutrition journey, I know it was not mine. For many the best place to start is simply reading the labels of the products they are buying, so here is a guide to label reading 101.
When I began the become more health conscious and aware of the types of foods I was putting in my body, the first change I made was reading the labels on my food. At first I found them confusing, but once I understood what I was reading it was an absolute game-changer. I felt empowered and enlightened to make better and smarter choices for my health. At times I thought that I was making a “healthy” choice, but when I learned to truly read labels I realized that was I thought was healthy, was in fact truly not so much.
So now it’s time for me to share my wisdom with you! Although it is always best to make your cereals, granola bars, oatmeal and treats from scratch, I realize that sometimes you are simply going to buy it at the store. So here are a few tidbits to help you make your own empowered choices.
Label Reading 101
There are three parts to a food products labels; the front, the nutritional chart and the ingredients list. They each contain their own information, some of them helpful, others not so much.
PART 1 – The Front
The front of any food product, although it may be pretty, is as much of an advertisement as the commercials you see on TV or the ads you see in the magazines. They are created by marketers, designers and graphic artists sitting in an office trying to sell more product. I can say this from a place of love, as I used to be one myself. While working in marketing agencies who created brand packaging I discovered that the design on those packages are simply that – designs. Littered with trendy nutrition keywords that don’t necessarily have your health as their top priority. Therefore you can have a look at it, but I would take the front with a grain of salt.
PART 2 – The Nutritional Chart
Located on the reverse of the packaging this chart provides the nutrient breakdown of a product. In reality, it is pretty helpful but can be pretty darn confusing if you don’t know how to read it! So here are some simple tips to get you started:
Check the Serving Size: Compare the serving size to the actual package size – this is a common miss. Often the serving size is 1/2, 1/4 or even a small tablespoon of the entire bottle or box. Consider how much you will actually be eating vs what the serving size it. For example, the average serving size of a box of pasta is 1/7 of a box, that’s about 12 noodles. How often do you eat 12 noodles for dinner?
Look at the Calories: Calories = Energy. So it is important to consider how much energy you get from one serving. A common supermarket granola cereal brand shows that it has 210 calories for every 1/2 cup of granola. Half a cup of granola is about 3 spoonfuls and I know your breakfast or snack is bigger than that. So if you are eating it 1 full cup, adding some vanilla yogourt and fruit to your healthy mid-day snack, unfortunately, you’ve managed to pack back a whole load of energy in one little meal.
Consider the Calorie Sources: Is the product higher in protein, carbohydrate, sugar or fat? This part is truly the heavy hitter on the ingredients list. You’ve heard it once, but I’ll say it again, not all calories are created equal!
Let me pump the breaks here a little and say that we need all 3 of the nutrients in our diets. Natural food sources are always the best option, and depending on who we are and what we do, we might require them in various amounts. But knowing where the calories in our food come from can make a huge difference. Consider a low-fat vanilla greek yogourt, touted for being a high protein food. With 140 calories per serving it doesn’t seem like a bad snack choice! But let’s have a deeper look and do a little math on this one.
- Protein = 12 grams x 4 calories per gram = 48 calories
- Sugars = 21 grams x 4 calories per gram = 84 calories
Think about that for a moment. That “high-protein” yogourt you thought you were getting is actually providing 60% of it’s energy source from sugar – that’s about 9 sugar cubes. It’s important to consider the type of food you are eating and where the nutrients should come from.
- Look For Lots Of: Fibre, Vitamin A, Vitamin C, Iron, Calcium & other vitamins and minerals
- Look For Less Of: Trans Fat, Sodium & Cholesterol
PART 3 – The Ingredients List
To me, this is the single most informative part of the label. The front is made to be pretty and the nutritional chart is rather confusing, so taking a moment to look at what the product is actually made of is vital! Ingredients are always listed in predominance of weight from most to least. What that means is that the first ingredient in the list is the most predominant in the food, and the last is the least predominant. If sugar is #1 on that list, I would put it back. This “healthy” hazelnut spread is one of the biggest culprits of that. Try and keep the number of ingredients on this list to a minimum, and if you don’t know what an ingredient is, it’s probably not good for you.
In a nutshell, it is important to do a little “research” on the food products you are buying, it will make a huge impact in the long run. Take the time to read and compare labels in the aisle of your supermarket. It’s nothing be ashamed or embarrassed of, you are in control of your own health and I’d say you’re worth it.