Translating Food Labels

Sugar, sugar...

Food labels are kind of a nightmare. Although meant to guide, they often seriously complicate the food decision making process. The best (and healthiest!) solution is to buy food WITHOUT labels and packaging like fruits and vegetables, but let's be real: some of your food comes from a box. Now by no means do I advocate running around antagonizing over every nutrition label.  My main reason for looking at food labels is not for calorie or carb counting, but rather to be more mindful of what I am using to fuel my body.  In my opinion the number of carbs or grams of sugar doesn't matter as much as WHERE those calories and carbs come from.  If you must eat food from a box, can, bag or jar there are three components of a nutrition label that are important to review:

1) Serving Size: Failure to pay attention to the serving size is a really easy way to load up on excess calories.  Packaging can be deceiving and sometimes even a bag of something that is marketed as "Snack Size" can really contain 2 or 3 servings.  One of the many problems with processed food is that it contains a lot of empty calories, which means not only does it fail to nourish our cells and provide use with a steady source of fuel, but it also takes us much longer to feel full, leading to overeating. Try to stick to a serving size and if you're still hungry after you finish that one serving, try to satiate your hunger with something with more nutritional value, like a piece of fruit or a handful of nuts.    

2) Nutritional panel: This is the section that breaks down your total daily intake of certain macronutrients (carbohydrates, protein and fat) and micronutrients (iron, calcium, magnesium, etc).  Here are the main things you should focus on:

Trans fat: It will take you down.  Avoid setting yourself up for a losing battle and eliminate it altogether.  Ain't nothing good about trans fat.

Saturated fat and cholesterol: Truth be told it would be best to eliminate both of these as well.  While the body needs cholesterol, it makes more than enough on it's own and doesn't need it from outside sources.  The body has no need for saturated fat, which is the number one cause of Type 2 diabetes and heart disease.  The less cholesterol and saturated fat the better. #HealthyArteryParty

Salt (sodium): Did you know that two of the most prominent food risks in the U.S. in terms of the ability to prevent disease are not eating enough fruit and eating too much salt?   In fact too much salt causes disease (high blood pressure, heart failure, stroke, kidney disease and osteoporosis) that kills up to 4 million people per year. A whopping 75-80% of sodium intake in the U.S. comes from processed food.  That means adding salt while cooking or at the table isn't the real problem for us Americans.  The salt is lurking in the boxes, cans and jars of food we buy.   Here is an easy trick to determine the maximum amount of salt you should be getting from anything in a package: only buy foods with fewer milligrams of sodium on the label than there are grams in the serving size.  For example, if the serving size is 100 mg, the sodium content should be < 0.1 g per serving.  Or you can shoot for fewer milligrams of sodium than there are calories per serving. So if there are 200 calories per serving, make sure the sodium content is <200 mg per serving.  

Sugar: It's important to pay attention to sugar content, but as mentioned above the SOURCE of the sugar is the most important factor.  Naturally occurring sugar (from fruit) is ok and even necessary. More on that in the ingredient section.  

Fiber: People always talkin' bout protein.  Reality check: protein excess is a far greater problem in industrialized nations. I challenge you to find someone in the U.S. who isn't terminally ill or in starvation mode that has a true protein deficiency.  The real problem? Fiber deficiency!  The average American only gets about 50% of their daily fiber needs.  #ConstipationNation.  Fiber is one of things on the label that we want MORE of.  

3) Ingredient list: All ingredients in a food product must be listed on the label in order from largest to smallest by weight.  You can use this to identify foods that might be high in saturated fat, added salt or added sugars because these ingredients are listed in the top three. A general rule of thumb is the fewer ingredients in the ingredient list the better as this typically translates to less processed.  Now lets return to the source of calories, especially the source of sugar.  Sugar gets a bad wrap and rightfully so, but not all sugar grams are created equal.  Natural fruit sugar in it's whole form (which means fiber is part of the package) is a-ok. It's the added sugar we need to watch out for and it's plentiful in processed foods, often by an unrecognizable name. Although not great in excess, other sweeteners in natural form such as pure maple syrup are better than chemical and processed sources. Unfortunately the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has refused to include an added sugar section in the nutritional panel on a label. Food producers can get super stealthy and use many different types of sugar within one product to better conceal the added sugar in the ingredient list.  Here is a list of the SIXTY ONE sugar aliases that may pop up on an ingredient list: 

  • Agave nectar
  • Barbados sugar
  • Barley malt
  • Barley malt syrup
  • Beet sugar
  • Brown sugar
  • Buttered syrup
  • Cane juice
  • Cane juice crystals
  • Cane sugar
  • Caramel
  • Carob syrup
  • Castor sugar
  • Coconut palm sugar
  • Coconut sugar
  • Confectioner's sugar
  • Corn sweetener
  • Corn syrup
  • Corn syrup solids
  • Date sugar
  • Dehydrated cane juice
  • Demerara sugar
  • Dextrin
  • Dextrose
  • Evaporated cane juice
  • Free-flowing brown sugars
  • Fructose
  • Fruit juice
  • Fruit juice concentrate
  • Glucose
  • Glucose solids
  • Golden sugar
  • Golden syrup
  • Grape sugar
  • HFCS (High-Fructose Corn Syrup)
  • Honey
  • Icing sugar
  • Invert sugar
  • Lactose
  • Malt syrup
  • Maltodextrin
  • Mall
  • Maltose
  • Mannose
  • Maple syrup
  • Molasses
  • Muscovado
  • Palm sugar
  • Panocha
  • Powdered sugar
  • Raw sugar
  • Refiner's syrup
  • Rice syrup
  • Saccharose
  • Sorghum Syrup
  • Sucrose
  • Sugar (granulated)
  • Sweet Sorghum
  • Syrup
  • Treacle
  • Turbinado sugar
  • Yellow sugar

High fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is a super processed, destructive monster and should not be a part of any diet. Be on the look out for this one. Unfortunately, added sugar can be in the most unlikely places, like ketchup, salad dressing and peanut butter.  Read the list and opt for brands that contain no added sugar- they do exist.  I know this may seem overwhelming at first, but with time and practice you'll figure out your go to brands.

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5 ingredients, no added sugar, no cholesterol, no saturated fat, and no trans fat

5 ingredients, no added sugar, no cholesterol, no saturated fat, and no trans fat

And now a food label challenge.  Take what you've learned today and compare the nutrition profiles, but most importantly compare the ingredients of this Zone Bar and this Larabar.  The choice is clear. Keep it simple.  

Check out the rest of the posts in the National Nutrition Month Series:

1) National Nutrion Month: An Overview

2) National Nutrition Month Approved Recipes

3) 7 Dangerously Common Nutrition Misconceptions