Reading Nutrition Labels Clearly
by Amanda Piccarreto
In a consumer culture where we can eat tropical Jamaican fruits on a cold winter’s night in Minnesota and enjoy a hearty German chowder at a summer luncheon in Miami, knowing the properties of a meal sometimes feels like a chore. Nonetheless, it is one that we should avidly maintain so that consumption remains our choice. This supports a healthy lifestyle.
Nutrition labels assist us with this management; but what happens when we do not understand the words we see on the packaging?
Labels inform you on how much of the product you should eat, give you a measure of the energy and nutrition the food provides, and list the ingredients. This helps you eat the proper proportion, balance your diet for the rest of the day, and avoid potential harm if you have a sensitivity, allergy, or condition that certain ingredients may trigger.
Nupathe wants to help you clearly break down all of the important aspects, from top to bottom, based on recommendations, provided by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, and point out some hidden dangers you may need to look for to feed both your hunger and your health.
People often mistake portion size with serving size. The heaping pile of pasta that Grandma plops on your plate does not reflect the number of nutrients per serving listed on the package.
At the top of the label, you will see “serving size” and “servings per container.”
The “serving size” tells you the measured amount of product that provides you with the nutrient values listed below.
The “servings per container” shows you how many serving sizes each container holds.
Nearly everybody seems to watch their calories these days, but not all understand exactly what a Calorie is. A Calorie, more technically referred to as a kilocalorie or kcal, is one unit of energy made up of 1,000 little calories, that our bodies need to function.
Calories come from the macronutrients provided by our food, and sometimes you will see “calories from fat,” which will be further explained in the next section.
% Daily Value (%DV)
The provided information is all based on the assumption that you consume 2,000 calories a day in an attempt to suit most Americans. So, this is more of a guide than an absolute truth. These values are set by government standards and will be shown as percentages to the right of each measurement.
Of the five macronutrients, fat, protein, carbohydrates, fiber, and water, the first three molecules provide calories per gram (g). But there is more to nutrition than just the calorie count, so let’s look at each item individually.
Stop fearing fat! 25-35% of our diets should come from fat and every gram provides 9 kcal. Also known as lipids, they provide fuel, insulation, and important cellular components. We need fat, but not all fat is created equal, as the American Heart Association explains in further detail.
Fats derived from most animal products including: saturated fats (<10%), LDL cholesterol, and trans fats (0%).
Fats derived from plant products and fish including: monounsaturated, polyunsaturated fats (Omegas 3 and 6), and HDL cholesterol.
Some great fat sources include: almonds and other nuts, flax seeds and other seeds, salmon, and avocado.
Another trend to throw out the window is carb cutting unless specifically recommended by your doctor, as Harvard explains how we need them for a healthy lifestyle. 45-65% of our diets should consist of carbohydrates, and every gram of carbohydrate provides 4 kcal. Our bodies convert carbs into sugar for an immediate energy source and regulate our blood glucose levels.
Like with fats, some carbs are better than others. Pack your diet with whole grains and limit processed grains, like white bread, and added sugars.
This can prove trickier than it sounds because packaging can be misleading. Grain bread is not the same as whole grain bread. The difference lies in whether or not the germ of the seed is removed during processing; that tiny piece makes a big difference. Always look for 100% whole grain.
Some excellent carbohydrate sources include: sweet potato, quinoa, brown rice, banana and other fruits, and popcorn.
Protein provides us with amino acids which create the substance of our genetic makeup. Though incredibly important, we need to consume less compared to fats and carbs. Only 10-25% of our diets need to come from protein.
Some protein sources to incorporate into your diet include: lentils, fava beans (and other beans), seafood, pork (and other lean meat,) and tofu.
Managing Your Macs For a Healthy Lifestyle
The manufacturer does all the math for you to know how much of your %DV the product provides for each nutrient; but now, if you’re not the average American and consume more or fewer calories, you can calculate accurate values for yourself.
Take the gram amount of each nutrient and multiply it by its respective energy value. Then take that result and divide it by your total calorie consumption.
For example, let’s say you’re petite and consume 1,500 calories per day. Your snack contains 8g of fat, 18g of carbohydrates, and 3g of protein:
8×9=72, 18×4=72, 3×4=12
72/1,500=.048, 72/1,500=.048, 12/1,500=.008
.048×100=4.8%, .048×100=4.8%, .008×100=.8%
Therefore, your snack provided you with 4.8% of your DV for fat, 4.8% of your DV for carbohydrates, and .8% of your DV for protein.
Also, you can figure out how many grams of each macronutrient you need each day by multiplying total calories by percent and divining that by nutritive value.
Fat for example, if you want to know how much fat to consume daily on a 1,500 kcal diet your calculation would look as follows:
Therefore, 375-525 of your calories a day should come from fat, which translates to you consuming between 41.7 and 58.3 grams of fat daily.
With an understanding of the macronutrients comes greater power to manage your own health.
We mentioned five out the seven nutrients in the previous section. The last two are considered micronutrients because we require much smaller amounts of them, and they are vitamins and minerals. People always say to eat our vitamins (organic) and minerals (inorganic), but what are they actually telling us to consume?
These compounds help create and maintain all the constituents in our bodies, and we get most of them from our diets with exception of vitamin D, which we can synthesize through help of sunlight, and vitamin K, which our gut bugs excrete (gross, but cool.)
We need enough, but some vitamins and all minerals carry the risk of overdose.
Our bodies can flush an excess of water-soluble vitamins out with our urine, so there is no risk.These vitamins include: C, Bs (Thiamin, Riboflavin, Niacin, Biotin, Folic Acid, and B12.
An excess of lipid soluble vitamins dissolve in our fat stores and builds up over time, causing toxicity. These include: A, D, E, K.
Some key dietary minerals include: Potassium, Sodium (limit to less than 2,300mg/day according to the CDC), Calcium, Iron, phosphorus, magnesium, and zinc.
Manufacturers do not always list all vitamins and minerals, but they will list key ones that have significance in their product. Eat a wide variety of foods, and balance properly the DV% recommendations, and you should fall in the healthy range for vitamins and minerals.
Nutrition Label Ingredients
At the bottom, you will find a list; these are all the ingredients incorporated into your food product. They are listed in order from most to least abundant. So, if it is marketed as a health food, but lists sugar as a top ingredient, you may want to find a healthier option.
This section is particularly important to read if you have a condition requiring you to limit or avoids specific food.
Sometimes ingredients we cannot have hide behind big words. Here is a quick stop light guide for a few common trigger ingredients.
If you cannot have dairy, avoid products that contain the words: milk, yogurt, custard, cream, butter, casein, lactose, lactoglobulin, lactulose, curds, kefir, paneer, rennet, ghee, koumiss, and whey.
If you cannot have gluten, The Celiac Disease Foundation recommends avoiding: brewers yeast, rye, barley, wheat, Graham, oats, semolina, durum, triticale, spelt, farro, and farina.
If you need to limit or exclude sugar, The American Diabetes Association warns to watch for hidden sugars including: carbohydrates, fiber, starch, sorbitol, xylitol, and mannitol.
Reading nutrition labels does not feel like such a chore once you gain a clear understanding of what you are looking at. Take charge of your consumption; read clearly, live healthily.