Health-conscious individuals often stress the importance of reading nutrition labels to fully understand what you are eating. Nutrition labels and ingredients lists give us excellent insight into how good or bad the food is for you. However, for most people, the nutrition label can be quite confusing. Luckily, we will break it down so you know what to look for and what to avoid.
Almost everyone looks at calories, and, for some, it may the only thing that you look at. While this number is important, what’s more important is where those calories come from. For example, a healthy snack bar and a candy bar may have the same number of calories, however, the former will likely have lower sugar levels, healthier fats, plus protein and fiber than the latter. And when it comes to snacks, try to keep them below 200 calories per serving to avoid going over your daily limit and gaining weight.
Sugars: Natural vs. Added
While the numbers may seem high, natural sugars are usually not a cause of concern. These are the naturally occurring sugars in whole foods like plain yogurt, milk, or fruit. Where you need to be cautious is with some fruit juices, since you are essentially concentrating all the sugars into a bottle, while removing all the fiber.
Added sugars are the ones manufacturers use to make food sweeter. These will be included in the ingredients list, whereas natural sugars will not be. There are numerous names for them, but the most common are high fructose corn syrup or anything ending in “ose” (such as glucose, fructose, sucrose, dextrose, and maltose). In an attempt to fool consumers into thinking that a food doesn’t have that much added sugars, manufacturers will use different types of sugars in their products. Because ingredients are listed in descending order of weight, using small amounts of various added sugars makes them appear lower on the list.
Natural sources of added sugar, like agave nectar, molasses, maple syrup, evaporated cane juice, or coconut sugar, should be avoided as well. These contain the same amount of calories and too much can increase your risk for obesity and diabetes.
When choosing packaged items, an easy rule of thumb is to choose foods that contain less grams of sugar than fiber.
Fats: Beware of Trans & Saturated Fats
Trans Fat is the artificial fat made by adding hydrogen to vegetable oil , and can increase your risk for heart disease and type-2 diabetes. The nutrition label should always read 0 grams of trans fat. You should also check the ingredients label for trans fat or “partially hydrogenated oils” (legally, a food is allowed to contain up to 0.5 grams of trans fat and still list 0 grams on the nutrition panel).
With saturated fats, the lower the amount, the better. You want to limit your daily intake of saturated fats to 10 percent of your total calories. These should mainly come from whole, nutrient-dense foods like dairy, lean meats, nuts, and seeds versus crackers or snack bars.
Unfortunately, Americans consume well over the recommended 2,300 mg of sodium per day. Most of that excess consumption can be attributed to packaged foods. Snack foods should contain less than 300mg, while meals should stay below 700mg.
Fiber helps to slow digestion to keep you fuller longer and avoid blood sugar spikes (which spur cravings). Your daily intake goal should be between 20-35 grams. As far as the food label goes, there is no one amount for all packaged foods. Instead, aim for at least 4 grams of fiber per serving for grains, such as whole wheat pasta or macaroni and cheese, and at least 3 grams of fiber per serving for packaged snacks or breads.
Protein content often depends on the individual and their nutrient needs (and yes, you can eat too much protein). It’s best to shoot for snacks with 5-10 grams of protein.
Carbs should make up about 50% of your total caloric intake. Needs will vary depending on activity level, but cutting out carbs completely is not the best choice. Not all carbs are bad, so choose wisely and balance your exercise and intake accordingly.
Steer Clear Of Artificial Additives
So you’ve checked the nutrition panel and it looks pretty good. Next up is the ingredients list to look for any harmful additives.
- Both butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA) and butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT) are petroleum-based artificial preservatives, are linked to cancer, and should be avoided at all costs.
- Artificial food dyes (often listed as red, blue, or yellow followed by a number) are made from petroleum and have been linked to cancer in animals.
- Artificial sweeteners, such as sucralose, aspartame, and acesulfame potassium, are said to have a negative effect on gut bacteria and the saccharine flavor may increase your sweet cravings.
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