Properly reading a nutrition label is a basic skill that everyone who is interested in staying healthy needs to learn. Too often, food manufacturers market an item as healthy when in fact it's no different than the average unhealthy product on the shelf.
Don't Be Fooled
Most of the time, people look at the front label which contains healthy sounding keywords such as: multi grain, low fat, 7 grain and all natural. The better it sounds, the healthier people think it is. Unfortunately, manufacturers can get away with a lot on the front of the colorful and attractive label. The nutrition label found on the back is where all the important information is found. This is the only information you should use when trying to determine if a product is healthy or just a clever marketing ploy.
Serving Size and Calories
In this section, you'll get information on how big one serving is, how many calories each serving contains and how many of those calories are from fat. It's important that you pay attention not only to the amount of calories, but also the serving size. A lot of times, a serving will be made smaller so the calorie content can be reduced. You'll think to yourself, "Wow, only 100 calories." But how much food is contained in that 100 calories? Probably not a lot if it's a snack food. This gives the illusion that you're looking at a low calorie food when in fact the serving size is simply unrealistically small.
If you're trying to control your weight (gain, maintain or lose), the serving size should be very important to you. Americans tend to ignore that piece of information and only look at the amount of calories in one serving. They eat as much as they can and think they've only consumed the amount of calories in one serving; they underestimate what they've taken in. If you're counting your calories, you need to make sure you accurately measure what you're eating with measuring cups or a food scale.
The next section will list the total fat (in calories first then grams) in addition to a breakdown of the types of fat found in a food. There are three types of fat: saturated, unsaturated and trans fat. Saturated fat has been on labels for a long time and trans fat is now starting to be listed. Unsaturated fat is only listed on some foods but if you subtract the amount of saturated and trans fat from the total fat, you'll get the amount of unsaturated fat in a food. For example if a food has 20 grams of total fat, 5 grams of saturated and 1 gram of trans fat, you can subtract the 5 and 1 from 20 to get 14 grams of unsaturated fat.
A marketing trick that manufacturers love to use that misleads people into thinking a food is healthy, is to point out that a food is 98 or 99% fat free. While this statement is technically true, it is based on weight, not calories. Calorie-wise it can still be loaded with fat which is another reason you always need to read the nutrition label regardless of what you see on the front of the package.
A lot of people avoid foods that are high in fat because they think eating fat will cause weight gain. Fat in food doesn't cause weight gain, excess calories causes weight gain. You should avoid foods that are high in saturated and trans fat since they are the unhealthy fats. Unsaturated fat (found in nuts, fish and oils) have been shown to be healthy.
Foods high in cholesterol used to be thought of as very unhealthy. Research now shows that the amount of saturated fat found in a food is much more important than the amount of cholesterol. Saturated fat has been shown to increase cholesterol levels in the blood and should be avoided. However for those people who are on cholesterol medication and who have a history of high cholesterol in their family, cholesterol information remains very valuable.
Sodium has been shown to cause high blood pressure which can lead to atherosclerosis. Sodium is now a staple of the American diet. Generally, the more processed a food is, the higher its sodium content will be. TV dinners, fast food and ready to eat meals are all heavily processed and full of sodium. Canned goods such as meats, vegetables and beans are also very high in sodium which acts as a preservative.
The recommendation is that you take in no more than 2,300mg of sodium per day. Some foods can have half that much in a single serving. The good part is that there's an easy way to avoid a high sodium intake; don't buy processed foods. A majority of our sodium intake comes from these processed foods. Adding salt to your home cooked meals isn't a problem. Cooking your own food using fresh ingredients lets you avoid processed foods that are high in sodium. Always look at the sodium content of foods and buy alternatives that don't have as much. You should also always go for fresh over canned and homemade over ready to eat.
Carbohydrates have gotten a bad reputation in recent years but you shouldn't ignore all of them. Sugars are generally bad for your health which is why you need to look at the carbohydrate breakdown. There you'll find how many carbs a food contains including the amount of sugar, fiber and starches.
Protein is used by the body to repair and build all sorts of tissue including hair, nails and muscle. Not all protein is the same but a nutrition label doesn't break them down any further. Proteins are made up of amino acids. Our body can make some amino acids but not others. The ones that our body can make are called non-essential. The ones our body cannot make are called essential.
A protein is complete if it contains all the essential amino acids. Your body can only build and repair tissue if it has access to all of the amino acids which is why a complete protein is desirable. Complete proteins are only found in animal products (and soy) such as meats, milk, cheese, eggs and fish. Incomplete proteins lack one or more of the essential amino acids and can be found in non-animal sources such as nuts, rice, beans, corn, peas and bread. If you mix two incomplete sources of protein (peanut butter on bread or beans and rice), your body will combine the amino acids in order to build and repair tissue. This is why vegetarians can live normal lives.
Percent Daily Value
The percent daily values are listed for most of the nutrients on a nutrition label including fats, cholesterol, sodium, carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals. At the very bottom of the nutrition label, you'll notice it says, "Percent Daily Values are based on a 2,000 calorie diet." This label lists carbohydrates as having 9% daily value, meaning that if you're on a 2,000 calories diet, this one potato would have 9% of your daily carbohydrate needs. It also contains 12% of your daily fiber needs.
Vitamins and Minerals
Various vitamins and minerals are listed at the bottom of a nutrition label. Most of the time, only common nutrients such as Vitamins A and C, iron and calcium are listed. To get a more complete picture, use the USDA nutrient database.
Though ingredients aren't listed on the nutrition label itself, they are placed around it. This is one of the most important pieces of information you can get off of a food label. There are ingredients you should watch out for such as high fructose corn syrup (which adds sugar), partially or fully hydrogenated oils (which add trans fat) and ones that you can't pronounce. While this isn't always the rule, the longer the list of ingredients that you've never heard of, the more processed and unhealthy a food is.
The Bottom Line
The overall health of a food isn't determined by how many calories it contains. A healthy food can be high in calories just as an unhealthy food can be low in calories. You need to look at the overall picture of what the food is made of. You need to see what types of fat it contains, how much sugar it has and what ingredients are used to make it. Quickly glancing at a label won't give you enough information. You need to take your time and carefully look at everything in the food. It's your body and just as you wouldn't put bad gas in your car, you shouldn't put bad food in your mouth.