How to: read nutrition labels

Just because the packaging says “all natural” doesn’t mean it’s good for you

All those hard-to-pronounce words can be very overwhelming, but in order to make healthy decisions you have to face reading the nutrition and ingredient labels.

Today consumers are more conscious than ever. That’s why manufacturers now use some tricks to convince people that their products are healthy. Ignore the short “labels” on the front when it comes to the quality of the food. The ones on the back are where it’s at.

Reading labels is a very tricky business. We’ve got some information for you, which will help you understand those nifty labels and interpret them correctly, so grab some food out of your fridge or cupboard and let’s get started.

Begin with the serving size

Watch out for both the serving size, which is the amount people eat normally and the number of servings in the package. These serving sizes are more often than not much smaller than portions people actually eat, even when dieting for fat loss.

The nutritional information on the label applies mostly to one serving. So total calories are calculated per serving and the same is the case with the amount of fat, protein and so on. Don’t confuse one serving with the whole container, that would be an awful mistake. In most countries there is also a “per 100 gram” (or similar) — section, focus on that for easier calculation.

Be aware of labelling claims

They are designed to catch your attention and convince you that the product is very healthy. But most of them mean something totally different/unexpected:

Light: Products which are advertised with “light” are processed to reduce either calories or fat. Some of them are simply watered down. Be aware of extra added sugar.

Natural: It doesn’t have to mean, that the product is ‘natural’ in any form. In fact, it just means that the manufacturer, at some point in the process, had a natural source of food to work with. Not very natural if you ask me...

Gluten-free: Don’t confuse ‘gluten-free’ with healthy. The product is just free of proteins found in wheat which some people can’t tolerate. Gluten-free products can also be highly processed and often times contain too much trans fats and sugar. Plus they are unnecessarily more expensive than their “normal” counterparts.

Organic: This label only certifies organically grown products, but organic sugar is still sugar. For that reason it says nothing about whether a product is good for your health or not. But organic fruits and vegetables are most likely of better quality than non-organic ones.

No added sugar: Come on. There are enough foods out there that are naturally high in sugar (jam for instance). So no added sugar is almost a joke. Plus: sugar substitutes can be added but the product could be still labeled with 'no added sugar'.

Low-calorie: This label just means that the product has roughly 1/3 less calories than the same brand’s original product. It doesn’t mean that it’s really low in calories, but in general a useful label.

Check the ingredient list

The ingredients of the product are listed descending by quantity, which means that the ingredient listed at the top makes up the biggest percentage of the final product.

Look through the first three ingredients and check if they include refined grains, sugar or hydrogenated oils. If the product includes one of these, you can be pretty sure that it’s unhealthy.

Instead consider items that have listed whole foods as their first few ingredients. If the ingredient list is longer than 2 to 3 lines, it most likely is a highly processed product.

Watch out for (bad) fat

Do this by focusing more on saturated and trans fats. You want your foods to contain fairly little of these two and more of mono- and polyunsaturated fats. Although saturated fats are not as bad as some people thought in the past, trans fats are still very bad for your body.

Remember, that “fat-free” doesn’t mean calorie-free and that those products often contain added sugar.

Don't get too much sodium

The majority of people eat way more sodium than the recommended ~2–3g per day, because they eat too much processed and packaged food. Mind your salt levels and make sure that snacks like pretzels and bars have low amounts of sodium. Especially if you suffer from high blood pressure.

Dietary fiber

Your daily goal of fiber should be around 10–20g per 1.000 calories consumed per day. Aim at least for 4 gram per serving in any item that contains grains.

A decent amount suggests that your food is more than just empty carbohydrates. Fiber is also known to slow down digestion to help you stay full for longer. Stay away from ‘added fiber’ products — you want to consume products that have natural fiber in them instead.

Whole foods

If you have the opportunity, always choose whole foods and avoid processed foods. Whole foods don’t need an ingredient list, because the whole food is the ingredient. Rule of thumb: if you can determine the ingredients of your meal by simply looking at it, it’s most likely nutrient rich and healthy.

In all the other cases: Read it before you eat it!

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