Nutrition Labels: What Does It All Mean? Part 1

220px-US_Nutritional_Fact_Label_2.svgI have spent countless hours at the grocery store researching products, trying to find what’s best. You can read my “Navigating the Grocery Store Aisles” HERE and HERE.  Today I want to talk about something I think is essential when trying to eat healthy…reading labels! Reading the Nutrition Fact Label and Ingredient List is all you need when trying to decide what’s good for you and what’s not. Produce is easy: an apple is an apple, carrots are carrots (hopefully). But when it comes to frozen, packaged, boxed and canned foods, do you know what all those numbers mean?

Nutrition Fact Labels were first seen on certain food items in 1993, and no changes have been made to these labels since 2006, when the FDA required manufacturers to report trans fats separately in light of the mounting evidence that trans fats were dangerous to one’s health. So let’s go item by item and try to decipher what this “Nutrition Fact” label means:

  • TOTAL CALORIES: of course an important number, the Total Calories will tell you how many calories a product has PER SERVING. Make sure you look and consider the SERVING SIZE. If a bag of chips is labeled as having 150 calories per serving, but it’s considered to have 3 servings and you eat the entire bag, you will consume 450 calories!
  • FAT: this number will specify how many grams of fat a certain product has, also per serving, so keep portions in mind. When dealing with fat:
    • AVOID SATURATED AND TRANS FAT
    • Enjoy foods with mostly unsaturated and monounsaturated fat- these foods are usually higher in calories, but healthy fats are winners! These include nuts, olive oil and avocadoes, and are perfect for those athletes looking to increase their daily calories.
    • A word about TRANS FATS– trans fats have been proven to be downright dangerous to our heart health. However, because of a legislative loophole, a manufacturer can label a product ZERO Trans fat even if it contains 0.5 grams per serving or less. If the ingredient list has any partially hydrogenated oil or shortening PUT IT BACK!
    • Beware of LOW-FAT and FAT-FREE products; they will have substantially more sugar added (which is almost worse than the original fat!), so eat a smaller portion of the real thing: ice cream, butter, or salad dressing
  • SODIUM: sodium is used to enhance the flavor of foods or as a preservative to increase shelf life. Foods high in sodium tend to be more processed, so probably a good idea to steer clear of those. The recommended limit for adults is a MAX of <800mg of sodium per serving.
  • CARBOHYDRATES: this number includes both whole grains and sugars, so it’s best to focus on FIBER and SUGARS
  • FIBER: fiber is good! Foods higher in fiber are, in general, less processed. How much fiber do we need? Adults should consume 25-35 grams of fiber per day, and for children and young athletes, good rule of thumb is adding 5 to their age. For example, a 10-year old child should eat 15 grams of fiber per day.
    • When buying bread, crackers, cereals, pasta or even soups, aim for at least 3 grams of fiber per serving.
    • WHOLE grains are high in fiber, but make sure the ingredient list says WHOLE wheat flour, vs ENRICHED wheat flour
    • Popcorn, oats and quinoa are also whole grains and good sources of fiber

Tune in next week for more on sugars, ingredient lists and new changes coming to food labels

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