HOW TO READ A NUTRITION LABEL
Depending on your knowledge of nutrition you may or may not fully understand how to read a nutrition label on the back of a food item. This is a valuable skill that will only take a few minutes to learn and can save you from so many unwanted ingredients and additives. There are rules and regulations to how a Nutrition Facts" label must be organized and what it must include as regulated by the FDA. Click here to learn more about the ongoing debate about what should be included! In 2016 the labels were updated, so on the right you see the newer label, while on the left you see the older label that you may be familiar with.
Now this may seem simple but let's run through it from top to bottom to analyze all of the information that this actually provides. The label should provide you with the amount of servings per container, and thus what a serving size is as well. This way you know theoretically how much you should be eating. You will also see (now in large bolded numbers) the amount of calories per serving. Now remember if this is just meant to be a snack food, keep it on the lower calorie side so you can fill up on your meals of whole foods!
Next you will see the list of macronutrients (+ subcategories) and micronutrients. You will first find the total fat in the food in grams and the percent of your daily value. As noted in the bottom of the label the percentage is out of a 2000 calorie diet so will definitely vary per person. When it comes to fat try avoiding things with high amounts of trans fat. Trans fat is considered to be one of the worst types of fat you can eat and raises the bad cholesterol in your blood while lowering your good cholesterol. Learn more about why you want to avoid trans fats here. You also want to make sure that no one percentage is too high. You do not want to be getting the majority of a single nutrient from this one food source. You want to still have room throughout the day to fill up with a variety of sources.
You will next see cholesterol and sodium. Again, make sure the cholesterol isn't too high, but the real silent killer here is sodium. You would be surprised to find the most insane amounts of sodium in some processed foods that are seemingly healthy like prepared soups or broths. Always double check the sodium and remember that "the American Heart Association recommends no more than 2,300 milligrams (mg) a day and moving toward an ideal limit of no more than 1,500 mg per day for most adults." So if your food is anywhere in the 1,000's you may want to avoid that.
The next category is total carbohydrates, with the categories of dietary fiber, total sugars, and added sugars. Dietary fiber is a good thing to look for as it will help slow the digestion and blood glucose response when eating foods (creating a smaller insulin spike). It will also feed good gut bacteria and keep you fuller longer!
So if you have a food with a good amount of carbohydrates and it has a high amount of dietary fiber that is good! If your food has a high amount of carbohydrates, low amount of fiber and high amount of sugar that is not so good. Some carbohydrate rich foods will have some sugars naturally which is ok. But as a general rule of thumb you should try and limit added sugars for good health. When looking at sugars you may find that there are x number of total sugars but 0g of added sugars. This may mean that there is natural sugar present or a sugar alternative used. This can be a way for companies to avoid having to add in the amount of sugar. To see if this is the case go to the ingredients list and look for anything from sucralose, aspartame, saccharin, corn syrup (solids), dextrin, etc. If it is a name that you are not familiar with then it most likely isn't good.
The next area is protein and is fairly self explanatory and is counted by the gram like carbohydrates and fat. Then we get to the micronutrients. They include areas here that people commonly don't get enough of as a means of public health initiative.
The last area that you want to really pay attention to on a food label is going to be the ingredients list. You always want to look for foods that you would know. A common saying in the nutrition world is if your grandma wouldn't recognize it then you shouldn't be eating it. You also want to try and stay away from incredibly long lists as well as that is often something that is highly processed. In the example below the ingredient in the highest amount is sugar! That means the food is mainly sugar! Then it moves to enriched bleached flour, which is flour that was stripped of all of its nutrients, refined, then combined more artificial micronutrients. This is a type of flour you will commonly see as companies use it to sound better when they could just use a whole wheat flour with all of it's nutrients but would lose the white color of the baked goods. While you may know what milk fat and whole milk powder are these foods are quite processed and aren't the best options to consume. Also, if you look at the bottom of the list the term "artificial flavor" is one of the most ambiguous terms out there as it can mean a variety of different flavoring agents that can be derived from just about anywhere!
What you want to look for:
High Dietary Fiber
Low to no trans fats
Low to no added sugars
*Remember to pay attention to serving size and the ingredient list!
When in doubt make it yourself! What processed food do you really need that you can't make? A cake? Chips? Cookies? Hummus? Plant milk? There are so many recipes online and in cookbooks these days why not get in the kitchen and try to make some of these things from scratch and see how you feel when you know exactly what is in it! And as long as it's a whole food, it won't need a nutrition label, as you already know exactly what it is!
Read more from the FDA about Nutrition Labels Here