Be a Conscious Eater – Read Nutrition Facts
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) require that food manufacturers and sellers label their products with nutrition facts and ingredient lists. You may be familiar with the iconic image, even if you don’t bother reading the details. Most people don’t pay attention to this incredibly useful and informative block of black and white. Don’t be like most people. In order to take control of your health through nutrition, you need to be informed as to what you are putting in your body. Just because a product is on a store shelf, doesn’t mean it doesn’t contain noxious ingredients that can damage your health and well being.
Luckily, it’s not very complicated to figure out your way around nutrition facts labels. To boot, the FDA has updated the label to reflect “new” (the government is always behind the times) information in the world of nutrition science. Food manufacturers will have up until July 2018 to comply with the new labeling requirements.
The New Nutrition Facts Label
While the recorded data has essentially remained unchanged in the new label, there are some differences in the presentation of the information. For example, the text size for calories was enlarged and bolded to catch your eye. Serving sizes were also updated to reflect how much the average person actually eats in one serving (HINT: It has increased since 1993).
Daily values (DV) for nutrients like sodium, dietary fiber, and vitamin D have been updated in light of newer scientific evidence. A new category was added to reflect amounts of added sugars. For micronutrients, actual amounts are declared in addition to their DV.
While this is all well and good, it doesn’t really affect the discerned nutrition facts label reader who already tracks their calories and pays attention to macronutrient consumption. However, it is important to be aware of the changes in nutrition facts labels you will start to see over the next couple year. You can read more about it on the FDA’s website.
The important sections of the nutrition facts label include the following: serving size, total calories, total fat, cholesterol, sodium, total carbohydrates, protein, vitamins and minerals. Let’s talk briefly about each one.
- Serving size: this is a crucial piece of information that is probably the most overlooked. People tend to look at calories without understanding the actual amount of food that the calories represent. For example, let’s compare two different brands of, let’s say, vanilla ice cream. Brand 1 has 200 calories per serving, while Brand 2 has 120 calories per serving. You might say, “aha!”, Brand 2 is less calories so that is what I’ll buy. Afterwards, you realize that the serving size for Brand 2 is only 40g while the serving size for Brand 1 is 100g! That means you are getting 2 cal/g in Brand 1 and 3 cal/g in Brand 2. Always pay attention to serving size.
- Calories: not much to be said here. These are the total calories you’ll get in a serving.
- Total fat: in the new label, fat is now broken down to show saturated and trans fats. These are fats to avoid, especially trans fat. Fortunately, nowadays trans fat is taboo so you typically won’t actually find it in your food, but it’s good to check. Sometimes food labels will also show you unsaturated fats. As a general rule, unsaturated fats are healthier than saturated fats.
- Cholesterol: I don’t much look at this, to be honest. There is some debate as to how much dietary cholesterol really affects your cholesterol levels. If you have high cholesterol, then obviously avoid foods high in cholesterol. Otherwise, I wouldn’t fret over this number. Of course, you must consult your doctor.
- Sodium: another thing I don’t tend to look at. However, if you have high blood pressure, it’s typical to avoid sodium. Again, consult your doctor.
- Total Carbohydrates: this category includes dietary fiber (soluble and insoluble) sugars, and now “added” sugars. I wouldn’t concern myself too much on added sugars as much as total sugars. If you are trying to trim down, it’s a good idea to limit your sugar intake. Sugar is more important to look at than total carbs, as your body does not digest dietary fiber.
- Protein: self explanatory. A pretty important number for those who are physically active.
- Vitamins and minerals: this is another minor category for me. If there are particular micro-nutrients you are not getting through diet, then it’s good to pay attention to. If you already eat a variety of fruits, veggies, and meats and supplement with multivitamins, then you are solid.
In my opinion, the ingredients list is the most important thing to pay attention to. In this day and age, pretty much all packaged food we buy at the grocery store is processed. All kinds of ingredients end up in our foods during processing. Some are chemicals that preserve food and increase shelf life. Others are added just for coloring, and others more for food consistency. Some ingredients end up in the food as byproducts of the manufacturing process and some are added to make the process cheaper or more efficient. For food manufacturers, these additives and chemicals are a boon. For consumers, however, we just simply don’t know what we are putting in our bodies and how it affects our health.
There are too many chemicals in processed and packaged foods for the average person to effectively scan every ingredient in every product. To make it easy, I tend to simply avoid anything that comes in a package. If it isn’t something that can be found in nature as it is, then you bet that it was processed. This narrows things down to essentially fruits, veggies, and fresh meats. However, that usually means cooking, which is not always feasible. Packaged food is so much more convenient than cooked meals, especially when you don’t have the time to spend preparing food and walking around with Tupperware while out and about. The good news is there are still some healthy options for packaged foods. You just need to know how to spot them. The biggest visual cue is the length of the ingredients list.
Ingredients List Length Test
For example, consider this ingredient list. Pretty long list, huh? How many of those ingredients do you actually know? A long list of chemically sounding ingredients should caution you. This isn’t to say that everything on this list is bad for you, but if you don’t know what half the ingredients are in the food you are eating, that should raise a red flag.
Now consider this next ingredient list. Short and sweet, and you know exactly what each ingredient is. It’s much easier to tell that this packaged food is going to be healthier for you than the previous one.
Both of these ingredient lists are for packaged food bars. I am not trying to sell you on a brand, which is why I haven’t included names here. This is just to illustrate an example of how to scan nutrition facts to discern what could be potentially bad for your health. It takes some practice and effort in the beginning, but eventually you will find a few select foods and brands that fit your nutritional lifestyle (without having to Google search every single strange chemical on ever nutrition facts label).