Understanding Food Labels - Part I

October 1, 2018

Food labels are designed to help us see what the product contains. We all may be looking at the label for different purposes, such as avoiding an ingredient you're allergic to, limiting fat intake, finding foods rich in fiber, or trying to find healthy snacking options. However, many are not educated enough to know what they are really looking at. Some look at one thing instead of the whole label.

 

Companies are also now becoming tricky with what they are creating a label, either by taking out one thing (such as fat) and adding more of another (sugar), or they are taking ingredients and giving them different names. They are also adding in tempting words that will make you want to buy products (such as organic, fat free, healthy, no added sugar, whole wheat, etc)

 

Lets go over the basics:

 

Serving Size

Packages usually contain more than a single serving, which means you may have to multiply the amounts listed to get an accurate picture of how many ingredients and calories are in the package. If you buy a bag of chips and the serving size is 15 chips but you ate 30, multiply everything by 2.

 

Calories

This is what most people ONLY look at when reading a label. Know your caloric daily intake. If something is, lets say, 1500 calories, well you basically are done eating for the day. Be mindful when looking at calories and how much your intake will be.

 

Fats

Fats are not always bad. Look at peanut butter, where more than half of the calories are from fat. Of course, eating in moderation is a must because it is still fat, there are good and bad fats out there. Avoid foods with trans fats, which raise LDL. Also, limit intake of saturated fats. Fats should range from 20%-35% of the calories you eat.

 

Sodium

The recommended daily allowance is 2,300 mg per day. Consuming excess sodium can lead to hypertension (increased blood pressure), thirst, bloating, and increased cardiovascular risks. Processed foods tend to carry LOTS of sodium, to be able to preserve it longer and keep it on the shelf. When looking for canned foods, look for products low in sodium.

 

Carbs

There are different types of carbs out there - complex and simple. Complex carbs are more so found in natural fibrous foods like fruits and veggies, which are better for you than simple, refined sugar. Carbs will be broken down into sugars and fiber. You'll want to look for those carbs that are more rich in fiber than sugar.

 

Sugar

Many people tend not to read this, but this part is very important. Products like to list things as low fat and think you're eating healthy, when actually they are just adding in more sugar to replace the fat. It is recommended no more than 35g per day of sugar. Look for products that are less than 10g of sugar. Some products, such as fruits and juices may tend to have more natural sugar compared to the added refined sugar. However, it is sugar and should be in moderation as well.

 

Fiber

It is recommended that a person consumes 25-35g fiber per day. Most people don't even come close to this. It makes you feel fuller longer, decreases blood sugar, and great for colon health. The more fiber you can find the better!

 

Ingredients

The shorter the list, the better. If it has more than 5 ingredients, usually it contain unnecessary extras such as artificial preservatives. Look for foods containing unprocessed, recognizable ingredients. If you can't pronounce it or don’t recognize some the ingredients, put the product back on the shelf. Beware of hidden sugars which can be used under many different names including: dextrose, fructose, galactose, glucose, lactose, maltose, sucrose, mannitol, sorbitol, xylitol, beet sugar, corn sugar, corn sweetener, high fructose corn syrup, isomalt, maltodextrins, maple sugar, sorghum sugar, etc (anything with -ose is a sugar).

Also, sugar alcohols come in many different types as well - sorbitol, mannitol, malitilol (-itol). Products can be labeled sugar free because sugar alcohol counts separately. Sugar alcohols are not completely absorbed by the body, which means they can have less of an impact on your blood sugar. However, side effects can cause intestinal discomfort, bloating, and gas.

 

Protein

Proteins should make up a bulk of your calories from 20-45% of your intake. I recommend for those who want to be in shape and increase muscle, 1g of protein per body weight is ideal.

 

Daily Values

I wouldn’t go by these numbers so much. This is for a 2,000 calorie diet, which may not be the case for you. 5% DV or less is low, 20% DV or more is high.

 

Net Carbs

Some packages list “net carbs” meaning a calculation representing mostly starches and sugars in food after fiber and sugar alcohol contents have been subtracted. The thought is that net carbs only account for the carbs that affect blood sugar. However, the FDA has not regulated this on food labels, so it is better to shift from these numbers and look more toward a glycemic index of foods.

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