How to Read a Food Nutrition Label

To ensure you have a healthy and balanced diet, you need to know what is in your food. It has become easier as food labels now have more nutrition information and you can make a more informed choice when buying food.

Your relationship with food is very important. A healthy and balanced diet can help improve your immunity, provide energy and aid you in your fight against many diseases. An unhealthy diet can leave your immune system weaker and even cause certain diseases such as heart disease or diabetes.

Unless you have been mindful of what ingredients are in your favourite foods, understanding the nutrition labels can be difficult. Most food labels manage to cram a lot of information in a small space. Deciding which information is important and which isn’t can be challenging. As with a lot of things in life, once you understand the basics, the rest falls into place and you’ll understand the labels a lot more.

What is Serving Size, Anyway?

Most food containers show a Serving Size on their label. A lot of people don’t read this part and have a false idea of how much they should be consuming. For example, a can of soup may say that it contains 2 servings. That means that the information on the label would be doubled if you ate the whole can.

Labels have improved over time and most now specify a per-serving amount as well. For example, a 330ml can of fizzy drink used to be considered 1.5 or even 2 servings. As most people will drink the entire can in one go, they are now considered a single serving. A 500ml bottle, though, is considered to be at least 1.5 or even 2 servings.

Calorie Content

Once you know the serving size, you’re ready to move on to looking at the quality of the food you’re eating. The calorie content part of a food label is arguably the most important to understand.

Most labels will say how many calories per serving, as well as per pack. A calorie is the unit of measure for how much energy it takes to break down the food. The more calories it takes, the longer the food takes to break down.

Your metabolism is the measure of how much energy you burn over a period of time. Although exercising is an important way of keeping fit and burning calories, the overall effect is not significant to the number of calories you burn during the day.

Everything you do, from breathing, digesting food, to your heart beating, it is burning calories. The average adult male requires 2,500 calories a day, while females require slightly less at 2,000.

Nutritious foods provide 3 basic biomolecules: proteins, carbohydrates and fats. Most food labels tell you exactly how much of each type is present in a single serving. The label may also tell you how much of each type is provided in each serving.

Depending on the label, the following are the major categories you’ll find:

  • Total calories per serving
  • Grams of carbohydrates
  • Grams of fat
  • Milligrams of sodium
  • Grams of protein
  • Vitamins and minerals, if any

While the above are the three main categories of biomolecules, they are broken down into sub-categories to aid in understanding what you are consuming. Let’s take a look at those subdivisions and what they mean for you when it comes to your diet.

Not all Carbohydrates are Good For You

When it comes to carbohydrates, some are better for you than others. You need a certain amount of carbohydrates for energy and health. Any diet that tells you to eliminate them completely is unhealthy.

Food labels will show two types of carbohydrates – fibre and sugars. You may be surprised to learn that you need both in a healty diet. Unfortunately, many people simply don’t factor in enough fibre in their diets. When checking your food labels, try to ensure you have a high level of fibre.

This helps to reduce your cholesterol level and keeps your digestive system regular. Foods that contain whole grains such as oats naturally have a high level of fibre. Fibre is known as the Healthy Carbohydrate.

Then there are the sugars. These are what people who are either concerned about or already have diabetes. You should keep the level of sugars in your diet low to avoid complications later in life.

A general rule of thumb is 1g of carbohydrates equates to 4 calories. Therefore the number of calories is 4 x the carbohydrate grams. You can then use that number to determine the percentage of total calories provided by carbohydrates.

Protein and its Purpose

Protein is used by your body to build structures. The majority of your body is made up of proteins. In order to develop muscle and repair cells, ensure your foods have some of this important nutrient.

Protein is measured in grams. Be on the lookout for foods that are high in protein, either animal or vegetable in origin. Meat, nuts, whole grain and dairy all have high levels of protein.

The Facts About Fats

Apart from the above, food labels also have information about fats. Scientists and dietitians previously warned against the consumption of any fat in foods. Modern science does not support that theory. They have discovered that we also require a certain amount of fat in our diets.

Fats can be broken down into two main categories – Saturated and Unsaturated. Plants are a good source of unsaturated fats. When left at room temperature, unsaturated fats are liquid. Unsaturated fats are considered to be healthy. You need them to help keep your skin and other organs healthy.

Unsaturated fats help lower bad or LDL cholesterol and raise good or HDL cholesterol levels in your blood. This helps to protect your heart and prevent problems such as heart disease and stroke. As with fibre, unsaturated fats help keep your digestive system running smoothly.

Saturated fats come from animal fats. They are the opposite of unsaturated fats. They are solid at room temperature and are considered unhealthy. They contribute to high cholesterol, clogged arteries and can ultimately lead to heart disease, stroke, and other disorders.

A good food label will show how much cholesterol there is per serving. Keeping track of your cholesterol intake is important when trying to eat healthily. If you’re trying to lower cholesterol, you’ll want to pay attention to this part of the label.

Another type of fat is Trans fats. These are created by altering the chemical structure of unsaturated fats. They are also known as Hydrogenated fats due to the process of taking a normal unsaturated fat and adding hydrogen molecules. These allow the fat to become solid at room temperature.

For many years it was thought that trans fats were as healthy as unsaturated fats, but that has been disproved. In fact, trans fats are actually more harmful than saturated fats. When reading the label on your food and avoid any that have trans or hydrogenated fats.

The United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) now requires that trans fats are listed on food labels. These fats have no nutritional value and are in fact harmful to you.

Sodium Safety

Another nutrient that food labels provide information about is sodium. Sodium is the fancy, scientific term for salt. Most people with normal blood pressure usually don’t take much notice of salt. Those who suffer from high blood pressure need to carefully monitor the sodium level.

High blood pressure is caused when sodium causes your body to retain water. High blood pressure is a leading risk factor for heart disease and stroke. People with high blood pressure should check the sodium level of all food they consume as it can appear in some of the most surprising of foods. Your doctor should tell you how much sodium is safe for you to consume.

Check the labels and choose food that has low or no sodium. Pay special attention to those proclaiming to be “low sodium”. You need to know exactly how much is there to monitor your intake.

Vitamins and Minerals

Although we can buy multivitamin supplements, the best way to get these essential ingredients is through the food you eat. When consumed in food, they are in their more natural form and easier for your body to absorb successfully.

Food labels will give you an idea of what nutrients can be found in a specific food. Look for foods that are high in vitamins and minerals such as calcium, vitamin C, vitamin A, potassium, and beta-carotene.

Always Make Time to Read the Labels

At first, reading all the labels on food can be overwhelming. As time goes by, you will find it easier and more natural to read the labels than not. Then you’ll have your favourite foods that you will know what they contain and will only need to check they haven’t changed.

You may need to spend a little more time when shopping, to ensure you have read and understood the labels. You will soon find that you are more aware of what you are eating, and it may even improve your overall health. You can help reduce this by having a list prepared for what you are needing to buy before going into the shop.

Check out the labels on alternatives. You may be pleasantly surprised to find new foods you haven’t considered before. As you shop, make a list of those items you best avoid. You never know, something you normally purchase has more sodium than you previously realised and can replace it with an alternate. Find alternatives that are healthier than your normal purchases.

Understanding Ingredients

There will be a second list on food labels. This will be a list of ingredients. Most labels show the largest ingredient at the top, going down until the ingredient with the lowest amount. This list of ingredients can be very helpful for determining if a food is something you want to eat or not.

Some ingredients you might want to avoid include:

  • Corn syrup (highly processed sugar)
  • Hydrogenated oils
  • Monosodium glutamate (MSG)
  • Artificial colouring
  • Artificial sweeteners (sucralose, aspartame, saccharin)

Most ingredients that are man-made or from chemical processing are not as good for you than the natural ingredients they are designed to replace. A rule of thumb to follow is that if you can’t pronounce the ingredient, you probably shouldn’t eat it.

You may be shocked to find out just how many of our daily diet is made up of unhealthy ingredients or contain unhealthy amounts. While some foods with labels are healthy for you, there are a lot of foods that come in cans, boxes, and bags contain harmful ingredients.

Foods Without Labels

Generally, foods that do not require an ingredient list are better for you. Most of the foods that fall into this category are fruit, vegetables and meat. Try to purchase foods that are less processed. They will normally be healthier for you.

Other foods have labels, but are also close to their natural state. This includes food such as:

  • Milk
  • Yoghurt
  • Whole grain bread
  • Whole grain cereals
  • Natural peanut butter
  • Natural cheese

Us the information you gain from reading the labels to make healthier choices when shopping. Look for foods that are high in nutrition and low on saturated fats, artificial chemicals, cholesterol, and processed sugars. Not only will they help you have more energy, go towards preventing disease and a reduced waistline.

Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

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