Nutrition Labels (Nutrition facts) – and what exactly you should be looking at

The diet in most industrialized countries is energy rich and nutrient poor, which is a major cause of obesity.

Many countries have made it mandatory to include nutrition labels on packaged foods and beverages, so that consumers can make informed choices about what they eat (and drink). However, just providing this information isn’t enough to make healthier food choices unless you know what really matters and what to look out for.

Nutrition labels contain important information about the following:

Serving size – The quantity of the packaged food that the manufacturer states should be eaten at a time. All of the information in the label (except the ingredients, which is one of the reasons it the most important information in the label even though it usually appears last) is based on one serving of the food. So, you may actually be thinking “Oh, this food contains just 100 calories, so no harm eating it” – but reality the serving size may be too little, and people might end up eating two or more servings in one sitting (so the calorie intake would go up two-three times than what is listed).

Servings per container – This shows the total servings in the package based on the serving size. If a package shows 100 calories and contains 3 servings, if you eat the entire package (because a single serving was too little to begin with), you will have eaten 300 calories.

Calories – I probably don’t need to tell you that this is the most looked at section. People want to know how many calories they are consuming from a certain food. The calories section shows the number of calories in one serving of the food. This is the section that people erroneously consider to be the most important.

Everyone just wants to know how many calories a packaged food contains. Fair enough. However, a calorie is not a calorie. A 100 calories from sugar is not the same as 100 calories from complex carbohydrates (such as whole grains), good fats or protein. In fact, 200 calories from complex carbs, protein and fats are much better than 100 calories from added sugar. Let me explain. When you eat 200 calories from the good sources, you are getting a lot of valuable nutrients, amino acids and antioxidants that the body needs for proper function whereas any amount of calories from added sugar is just “empty” calories because you’re not getting anything else from it. To make matters worse, added sugar causes blood sugar levels to quickly rise and over time, this may result in insulin insensitivity and metabolic syndrome and type 2 diabetes.

Calories from fat – The number of calories that come from fat.

% Daily value – This is based on the daily recommended values for each nutrient per day for adults in one serving of the food. This is usually based on a daily diet of 2000 calories. Generally, 5–10% DV per serving is low, while 20% or more is high. You only need to keep to the lower end of the %DV for trans fat, sugar and sodium.

Nutrients such as

  • Total fat
  • Saturated fat
  • trans fat
  • cholesterol
  • sodium
  • total carbohydrate
  • dietary fiber
  • sugars (look at this section closely, but more specifically look at sugars that have been added on top of the natural sugars. For that you must look at the ingredients very carefully).
  • protein
  • Vitamin A
  • Vitamin C
  • calcium
  • Iron

Ingredients – In my opinion, this is the most important part of the packaged product (far more important than calories). This list shows the ingredients that make up the packaged food in descending order by weight. The ingredient listed first was used the most to make the final product, while that listed at the end was used the least. This is particularly important because manufacturers are not always honest about what they state on the front of the package. For example, while the front of the packaged food may advertise “made with whole grains”, but when you read the ingredient list you may find some whole grains listed towards the end of the list. This means very little whole grains were actually used.

This list is also important to decide which packaged foods you should avoid based on what they contain, such as hydrogenated fats, refined sugars, high fructose corn syrup (or other syrups), artificial sweeteners, monosodium glutamate, and other things you may potentially be allergic or sensitive to.

Always choose packaged foods wisely. Make sure the foods that you eat contain little to no trans fat, cholesterol, sugar and sodium and more of fiber, protein, and vitamins and minerals.

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