Nutrition Label Reading 101

 By Carlene Helble

Raise your hand if you’ve been befuddled by the printed nutrition facts before. Don’t feel embarrassed, it happens to everyone. For example, I may or may not have a sister in college, majoring in fitness/health, who has some difficulties in this arena. A few days ago she picked up a jelly jar to scan the label and let out a guffaw. Here it comes:

“This jar says cholesterol O-M-G!”

For those of you with a similar label reading problem, what she read was ” Cholesterol 0 mg” or “zero miligrams”.

So after wiping the tears from my face of excruciating pain as a registered dietitian in training, and the tears of utter enjoyment as a sister, it occurred to me that label reading can be confusing, no matter what your background. Before you engage in a repeat of that situation, here’s the 101 on nutrition labels.

Source: FDA

The first thing you should look at on a nutrition facts label is the serving size. Note that one package does not equate to one serving. In fact, some labels will note ridiculous portions like ‘2 1/4 servings’. So while you may think what you’re eating is pretty healthy, don’t forget to multiply all the values by 2 or even 3 to account for the extra portions. Because did you really think that entire bag of Doritos was only a serving?

From this point on, you’ll notice lots of different measurements, from grams to miligrams, percentages, and more. Keep that in mind, or you’ll be unknowingly comparing apples to oranges.

 Calories

In the most basic sense, calories are a unit of energy that you put into your body. Too many calories over a period of time, means your body will store the extra fuel on your frame, causing weight gain. Too few calories means poor athletic performance, and your body robbing your muscles for fuel. Here’s where I need to add a disclaimer: Do not obsess about the calories! Look at the big picture of what you’re eating in a day and definitely note the source of calories. 100 calories from a candy bar doesn’t win in a fight against 100 calories of protein, omega, healthy fat almonds.

Fat, Cholesterol, Sodium

In general, keep these values on the low side. There are of course, exceptions. Foods  like olive oil, nuts, nut butters, and avocado will be high in fat but that does not make them evil! Fat is crucial for metabolic functions so while you should be aware, don’t demonize it. As for sodium, watch out for this, especially in packaged foods. Things like soups that you may think are a healthy choice, may harbor over 100% of your intake for the day.

Carbohydrates

Don’t bail on a food option because it’s high in carbs. This isn’t the 90’s! Carbs have 3 sub categories, 2 of which are listed on the label: sugar, fiber, and starch (not listed). Sugars account for the naturally occurring and added and the same for fiber. Higher fiber foods are great for keeping you satisfied and full, but I personally believe in natural sources, not Fiber One bars for my fix.

The Rest

Protein is self explanatory on a label. Beyond that you may find percentages of certain vitamins and minerals. But what are the a percent of? Nutrition labels are based on a 2000 calorie per day diet, so something with 80% ‘daily value’ of vitamin A means you’re noshing on a great source of that vitamin.

Know The Numbers

While I don’t support obsessive label reading, when you’re first starting out on the trail to nutrition knowledge, the best way to get an idea of better-for-you options is to check out what you’re eating now. You may be surprised to find that something you thought was healthy is actually loaded with sodium and added sugars. I call this the health halo. Label reading is the perfect way to be a myth buster for your body. Here are some examples of health halo foods:

  • Natures Valley Honey and Oats bar vs. Almonds: Very sneaky! In this package of two bars, only one bar is a serving. Here’s where you would know to multiply all those values by two if you’re eating the package.  One package  is 11 g of sugar or almost 3 added teaspoons of sugar. One ounce of almonds has similar calories, but less than 2 grams (under 1/2 teaspoon) of sugar and way more protein.
  • Yoplait Fat Free Yogurt vs. Greek yogurt: So you were wooed by the fat free? Shame on those advertisers. While it may be fat free, they also added 28 grams of sugar. A better option would be Greek Yogurt with double the protein and half the sugar. Check out Chobani which carries exotic flavors you will love!
  • Dried Fruit: I always carry dried fruit in my bag for a snack. True, this does make me an old lady and I’m okay with that. But if you’re with me, some check the ingredients list. The label will read high in sugar-naturally occurring!- but see if the ingredients list added sugar. I suggest Sunsweet Ones for your drug of choice.
More questions about nutrition labels? Give us a shout out!
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