How to Read Food Labels
Reading Food Labels - Nutrition Facts Explained
The key to controlling your weight and improving your health is quite simply eating right. Read your food labels and check over the nutrition facts to ensure that you are eating lots of the good stuff, and little (or none) of the bad stuff. That's pretty easy to understand.
However, what might be slightly tougher for some people to understand are the food labels themselves. What does it all mean? What should you be looking for? What are all of these nutrients? Which ones should be high? Which should be low? Which should purposely be eaten, and which should purposely be avoided altogether?
If you've ever turned over your package of food and asked any of these questions, you've found the right place. It's time to get the answers.
Typical food label showing nutrition facts.
Let's start at the top and work our way down.
At the very top of all food labels (right under the words "Nutrition Facts") is the serving size. This is one of the most important pieces of information on the label because all of the nutrition information shown is based on this exact amount. If you ignore the serving size, the rest of the information is useless to you, so be sure to notice it first.
Depending on what you're eating/drinking, the serving size could be described a few different ways. The most common are grams, ounces, cups, and pieces. Grams tend to be listed most of the time even when the serving size is first listed a different way. For example... Serving Size: 2 Pieces (100g)
If you saw this example serving size on your food label, it would mean that all of the nutrition facts shown are for 2 pieces (or 100 grams) of that food. That means that if you only ate 1 piece (or 50g), you can cut all of the nutrition information in half. If you ate 4 pieces (200g), then you should double all of the nutrition facts. This is all pretty easy to figure out when your food's serving size is actually listed in "pieces" (or even something like "cups" or "scoops"), but much of the time, this isn't the case.
A lot of the time serving sizes tend to be given in a unit of measurement that is nearly impossible to tell by eye, such as grams and ounces. In these cases (and the above cases as well), the only real way to get an accurate idea of exactly how many servings you are eating is by weighing your food out on a food scale. Obviously this isn't too practical if you're eating out, but for when you're home, it's perfect. (I use and fully recommend the Salter 2001 5-Pound Microtronic Kitchen Scale.)
Most food scales weigh food in both grams and ounces. This will cover pretty much every single food you'll ever eat, as, like I mentioned before, grams are typically always given as a serving size.
Servings Per Container
Servings per container tells you how many of the above serving sizes are found in the entire box/bag/can/jar/package/whatever that your food came in. So, if a serving size was 2 cups, and it says "Servings Per Container: 5," that means there are 10 cups in that container, and 5 total servings. Pretty simple.
Next up on our food labels is calories. This represents the total calories in exactly 1 serving of the food/drink. And, if you are trying to lose weight, gain weight, or just avoid gaining or losing weight, calories are easily the most important nutrition fact on the entire label. See, calories are energy. If you consume more total calories than your body actually needs for energy, you gain weight. If you consume less calories than your body needs for energy, you lose weight. This is just the basics of it, but have no fear... it's all explained in WAY more detail right here: Guide to Calorie Counting and Weight Control
Also keep in mind the serving size. It seems silly to repeat this over and over for all of the nutrition facts below, so let me mention this just once right here. If you are eating/drinking exactly 1 serving, then the calorie information given is the number of calories you have consumed. However, if you ate 2 servings, you must now double the amount of calories to figure out how many you are actually consuming. If you ate 3 servings, then you ate 3 times the number of calories shown (and all other nutrition facts as well). The same goes for if you ate half of 1 serving (divide all the nutrition facts in half).
So, just remember to take the specific serving size you are eating into account when figuring out all of nutrition facts on the food label.
Calories From Fat
Here's one that tends to confuse some people... calories from fat. First and foremost, NO, you do NOT need to add "calories from fat" to the amount shown for "calories" to get the total calorie amount in 1 serving of your food. "Calories" already includes the "calories from fat" (and calories from protein and carbs well). So, it's already showing you the total calories in 1 serving.
So then, what is calories from fat and why is it shown on food labels? That's actually a good question. As far as I'm concerned, it's pretty much useless information. Honestly, I can't find any real use for it being there, and, in my opinion, you can ignore it altogether. I'll explain a bit more about why below.
Next up is total fat. This is the total amount of fat in 1 serving size. Note the word "total." Why? Because typically the next few nutrition facts listed are specific types of fat. You do NOT need to add them all together with "total fat." Why? Because "total fat" already IS the TOTAL of all of the different types of fat in this food/drink. There's no need to add anything.
It's hard to say how high or low you want the total fat of your food to be, because, like I just mentioned, there are different types of fat. Some of them are terrible and should be avoided as much as possible, while others are actually great for you and should purposely be eaten (to a certain extent, of course). I'll explain which you want to be high and which you want to be low below when I explain each type of fat.
But, before I do that, let me also mention that 1 gram of fat has 9 calories. So, if your food has 10 grams of fat, it contains 90 calories from fat. Sound familiar? Yup, as long as you can do basic first grade math, you can figure out "calories from fat" all by yourself, which makes listing it on food labels even more pointless.
What does this whole 9 calories per gram thing mean to you? Not much. It does explain why foods high in fat also tend to be high in calories, but, that's about it. Paying attention to the amount of total fat and the amount of each type of fat is much more important. Speaking of which, let's go through these different fats right now...
Below "total fat" is usually a list of anywhere from 1-4 specific types of fat contained in 1 serving of whatever it is you are eating/drinking. While only some of these fats may be listed on certain food labels, these indented nutrition facts are definitely important and should always be paid attention to. The first one listed is saturated fat, and it is the fat listed most often. Saturated fat also happens to be one of the bad guys. While you don't need to eliminate all saturated fat from your diet completely, you certainly do want to eat as little of it as you possibly can.
If saturated fat was a bad guy, trans fat is that bad guy's even worse partner in crime. Being a cause of heart disease (among other things), this is the fat that you want to avoid completely. If you see a couple of grams of saturated fat on your food label, you should try not to eat this type of food often, and certainly make sure to keep the amount you do eat to a minimum. However, in my personal opinion and the opinion of many experts, if you see any trans fat on your food label, you should most likely not eat that food at all... ever.
There is something else you should know about trans fat. Food labels don't tell you the whole truth. See, the FDA has this rule about trans fat that says that if 1 serving of a food contains less than 0.5 grams, food companies are allowed to put "Trans Fat: 0" in their nutrition facts. It's insane, I agree. But, this is how it is. That means your food may say it contains 0 grams of trans fat per serving yet still actually contain 0.4999 grams of it. That means in this example, if you ate 2-4 servings of this food, you'd eat about 1-2 grams of trans fat and not even know it. Unless of course you know how to spot this trans fat lie in action, which I'll show you how to do right now.
Look through the ingredients of the food. If you see the any mention of the words "hydrogenated" or "partially hydrogenated" or "shortening," then whatever food you are looking at contains some amount of trans fat... whether the food label says it does or not. So, if an amount of trans fat is listed in the nutrition facts, then it obviously contains trans fat. However, if it says 0 grams yet has any of those three words I just mentioned in its ingredients, then it still contains trans fat. The only way to know for sure that it doesn't is to see "Trans Fat: 0" AND none of those words anywhere in the ingredients.
Some examples of foods that contain significant amounts of these two "bad fats" are chips and cookies, fast food, pastries, and typical junk food.
Polyunsaturated Fat and Monounsaturated Fat
Now that the two "bad" fats are out of the way, next on the list of fats is polyunsaturated fat and monounsaturated fat. These are the good guys. While the above "bad" fats can cause a variety of health problems, "good" fats like polyunsaturated and monounsaturated actually prevent health problems.
A good portion of the time polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fat aren't actually listed on food labels. This is because they're just not found in too many foods. Saturated and trans are far more common, so they are more commonly shown on labels. However, when these two good fats are listed and your food actually does contain some of either (or both) while at the same time containing little to no saturated or trans fat... then congrats. You are most likely eating a very healthy food.
Some uninformed people continue to scan the nutrition facts of their food for fat, and, if there is a significant amount, they avoid eating it. If the food is high in total fat because of saturated and/or trans fat, then this would be a good decision. However, if it's due to polyunsaturated and/or monounsaturated fat, it's a bad decision.
Some examples of foods that contain significant amounts of these two "good fats" are fish (and fish oil supplements), nuts and seeds, and olive oil.
Next up on our food labels is cholesterol, which, while not quite as terrible for the average healthy person as something like trans fat, is still another nutrition fact that you don't want your diet to be too high in. Some examples of high cholesterol foods include beef, eggs (the yolk), cheese, poultry, and certain junk foods and pastries.
Continuing down the list is sodium. While your body actually needs some sodium to function properly, a diet too high in sodium can lead to health problems. So, add sodium to your growing list of nutrients that you'd like to see very little of in your foods. Some examples of foods high in sodium include canned soup and vegetables, salted nuts and pretzels (and potato chips, etc.), ham, bacon, sausage and processed deli meats.
Now we come to total carbohydrates, aka carbs, which are our body's main source of energy. Unlike fat, carbs contain 4 calories per gram (compared to 9 calories per gram for fat) and, like fat, are equally one of the more misunderstood nutrition facts on food labels. Some of the people who are interested in weight loss tend to incorrectly think carb content is the most important thing to look for on a food label. However, like you learned before, that title goes to calories, which are the true key to weight control. Now, that doesn't mean carbs should be ignored, because the type of carbs you eat are pretty important as well. Not just for weight control either, but (even more so) for health in general.
There are basically two types of carbs, simple (bad) and complex (good). While there is no need to eliminate it completely, you most definitely want to limit your intake of simple carbs and get most of your carb intake from complex carbs. Hearing this will probably make you wonder how to tell if a high carb food is complex or simple. Good, I'll tell you.
The first way is by just knowing the types of foods that fit into these two categories. For example, some simple (bad) carbs include white bread, white rice, chips, cookies, candy, soda, and pretty much every type of junk food. Some complex (good) carbs include oatmeal, beans, whole wheat bread, brown rice, sweet potatoes, and most other fruits, vegetables and whole grains.
The second way of knowing if your food is a simple carb or a complex carb is by reading the food labels themselves. Listed directly below total carbohydrate are two other nutrition facts, dietary fiber and sugars. If a food has a good amount of fiber, it's most likely a complex carb. If it has a good amount of sugar, it's most likely a simple carb. Speaking of which...
Dietary fiber is one of the few nutrients found on your food label like you actually want to be high. Granted, fiber is rarely ever "high," however, a few grams per serving is a good thing as you now know that it most likely means you are eating a complex carb. Fiber is one of the things that makes a complex carb so good in the first place, as fiber slows the digestion of carbs by our body which in turn improves its effect on our blood insulin levels. On the other hand...
High sugar content in your food usually means the opposite of what high fiber content means, which is that you're probably eating a simple carb, which means very quick digestion and a bad effect on our blood insulin levels. This in turn is the cause of many health and weight related problems.
So, I guess you can add sugar to your ever increasing list of nutrition facts that you'd want to see very little (or none) of on your food labels.
The last nutrient on this list is protein, which contains 4 calories per gram just as carbs do. Protein plays an important role in muscle, cell, organ, and gland function therefore making it another nutrient that you certainly would not mind seeing a high number next to. Some examples of high protein foods include, meat, fish, chicken, turkey, nuts and beans.
Yes, there are many other nutrients that may or may not be shown on certain food labels, however, the ones discussed above are both the most common and most important nutrition facts listed. Now that you have a good understanding of what it all means, improving your diet, your weight, and your health becomes much simpler.
Great post TJ.. Maybe BTB could make this a sticky..
Sticky it is!
First week get a stinky woot!
very interesting, thanks for the post.
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