Reading Nutrition Labels

August 5, 2015
Leigh Erin Connealy, M.D.

They are on almost everything we eat. They contain nearly everything you need to know about your food.

I’m talking about nutrition labels. And they are some of the most misunderstood pieces of information out there.

So today, I’m going to give a quick primer on properly reading a nutrition label. What matters, and what doesn’t. What everyone looks at, and what most people miss.

And, most especially, what combining different parts of a label can mean for your health.

We fought long and hard to get nutrition labels attached to our foods. Yet most people barely give them a second thought.

If you don’t, hopefully this article will encourage you to pay more attention to what you’re putting into your body.

And what big food companies are trying to sneak past you, as well.

This is a rich topic, so let’s dive right in.

Ingredients

Without doubt, the ingredients are the most important thing on a nutrition label.

And, in many ways, they are the easiest to interpret.

Here are a few rules to follow…

  • Ingredients are listed from most prevalent to least. Consequently, you want the first few ingredients to be what you expect. Banana bread should have flour and bananas near the top. If they don’t, something is wrong.
  • Look out for the same thing listed many times. This is usually a problem for sugar. Sugar can be listed as high fructose corn syrup, maple syrup, glucose, sucrose, honey—the list goes on. If you see multiple listings for sugar, you should probably raise an eyebrow (and pass on the food item).
  • Make sure a food is what it purports to be. For instance, lots of products that claim to be whole wheat are anything but. They add a little whole wheat for color—but actually have the bulk of their nutrition come from refined grains (the exact opposite of a whole wheat). Wraps are especially prone to this problem. That “healthy” spinach wrap is usually a lot of refined white flour, some food coloring, and just enough spinach to hold up in court. Don’t take a name at its word—check the ingredients to make sure.
  • Be suspicious of words you can’t pronounce. Some are perfectly fine—many weird-sounding gums are used as fixing agents, or natural preservatives, and are perfectly safe. For instance, both propylene glycol alginate and carrageenan are thickeners derived from seaweed. But lots of other complex words, like olestra (a fat substitute which can cause diarrhea) or butyl hydroxytoluene/BHT (possibly carcinogenic), disguise dangerous, unhealthy additives—some used as flavor enhancers, others as preservatives.

In some cases, we’re eating embalming agents for food.

When in doubt, take out your phone and look up ingredients you don’t recognize. A quick Google search will tell you if the additive is dangerous or not.

But there’s so much more to these labels than the list of ingredients.

Nutritional Content

When most people look at the nutritional content, they focus on calories.

We’ve been taught to think of calories as the be-all end-all of nutrition. The more calories, the worse a food is for us.

But that’s not necessarily so.

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The fact is, we need calories to survive. Too many can affect our waistlines, true—but a calorie-dense food isn’t necessarily bad for us.

More important is where those calories come from.

Remember our healthy plate. We want about half a healthy plate to be made up of fruits and vegetables—rich in nutrients, low in calories.

Around a quarter of our plate should be healthy whole grains—the carbohydrates our body uses for energy during the day.

And around a quarter of our plate should be made up of healthy proteins—the building blocks for muscle repair.

With that in mind, think about what foods you’ll be combining in your meal, and try to find the right balance. A brown rice dish will be overloaded with carbohydrates. It would make an awful meal by itself.

But combined with a healthy portion of chicken and lots of veggies, it’s perfect.

Pay attention to the carbs and proteins in any food you buy. They won’t make up a quarter of the calories you take in—both are much more calorie-dense than vegetables, which provide essential nutrients in small doses.

And pay special attention to fat. We need plenty of fat to be healthy as well, but combine that with the ingredient list to see what you’re getting.

A natural peanut butter high in fat is fine—peanuts are high in natural “good” fats. While a potato chip, high in fat, cooked in canola oil, is not. You’re just eating unhealthy, fried food then…”bad fats.”

Find The Blank Space

Finally, the best nutrition label is one that isn’t there.

That’s because, if you find a food without a label, you’re eating a whole, unprocessed food—the best possible thing for you.

Think about it—when is the last time you saw a nutrition label attached to a tomato? Or an apple?

In today’s world, it’s virtually impossible to completely avoid processed foods. But the more whole foods you eat—consisting mostly of fruits, vegetables, meats and nuts—the better.

Whole foods don’t need nutrition labels. The more label-free meals you eat, the better your health will be.

An important thing to remember the next time you’re checking the back of a box for a list of ingredients. If you can, skip the box, and go straight to the whole foods.

That’s the best use of nutrition labels I know.

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