As part of keeping track of an overall balanced diet, the number one starting point is to read the nutrition label.
- Start with the portion size at the top of the label to determine what a portion size is. This helps keep track of optimal dietary intake. There may be more than one serving in a package. By determining one portion size, you will ensure that the rest of the nutrition label accurately reflects what you are consuming (total calories, fat, protein, carbohydrates, sodium, etc).
*For additional information on breaking down macronutrients from nutrition labels (fat, protein and carbohydrates) please click here.
- The label is typically based on a 2000 calorie diet per day, this amount of calories may not be suitable for all individuals. The optimal total daily calorie intake varies and depends on the height, weight and any weight goals or targets of the consumer. You can use a calorie calculator to get an idea of what your total calorie intake should be based on your size, activity level and weight goals and needs. For more detailed information and clinical guidance, speak with a Certified Diabetes Care and Education Specialist, doctor, or nutritionist to help answer specific nutrition questions for your optimal health and weight goals.
- The % Daily Value (%DV) is the percentage of the Daily Value for each nutrient in a serving of the food. The Daily Values are reference amounts (expressed in grams, milligrams, or micrograms) of nutrients to consume, or not to exceed each day, based on a 2000 calorie per day diet. The %DV shows how much a nutrient in a serving of a food contributes to a total daily diet. The %DV helps you determine if a serving of food is high or low in a nutrient. You may need to adjust the portion size and %DV accordingly, depending on what your total daily calorie target is.
- Read the list of ingredients, you should always be able to understand what the ingredients are, if not, you likely do not want to consume much of this. Having this information will empower you to feel confident about what you are putting into your body.
- The contents and ingredients are listed in descending order by weight of quantity. If the first ingredient is a sugar or sugar substitute and not a whole food, then this food item is mostly sugar in volume or weight.
- Be mindful of sugar and sugar substitutes and try to avoid them. These include: corn syrup, corn sweetener, cane sugar, other syrups, cane juice, fructose, juice, evaporated sugar, maltodextrin, stevia, malt, molasses.
Don’t fall for the buzzwords
Packaging labels try to lure consumers into purchasing products by making health claims that are often false or misleading. Health claims on packaged food are designed to catch your attention and convince you that the product is healthy when in fact, it may not be.
- Light- Light products are processed to reduce either calories or fat. Some products are simply very watered down. Carefully investigate to determine whether anything has been added, such as salt or sugar.
- Multigrain – This sounds very healthy but only means that a product contains more than one type of grain. The grains may be highly refined and stripped of any additional nutritional value, unless the product is marked as whole grain and unprocessed.
- Natural- This does not necessarily mean that the product resembles anything natural. It simply indicates that at one point the manufacturer worked with a natural source such as a fruit or grain to make the end product.
- Organic- This refers to the way agricultural products are grown and processed. While the regulations vary from country to country, in the U.S., organic crops must be grown without the use of synthetic herbicides, pesticides, and fertilizers, or bioengineered genes (GMOs). An organic label says very little about whether a product is healthy. For example, organic sugar is still sugar.
- No added sugar- Some products are naturally high in sugar. The fact that they do not contain added sugar does not make it inherently healthy. Moreover, sugar substitutes may also have been added.
- Low-calorie- Low-calorie products must contain one-third fewer calories than the brand’s original product. Yet, one brand’s low-calorie version may have similar calories as another brand’s original.
- Low-fat- This label often means that the fat has been reduced at the cost of adding more sugar, or other artificial additives. For example, fat free yogurt may add thickening agents and sweeteners in order for the product to remain texturally similar to full fat yogurt. In these instances, it is better to have a smaller portion of the natural full fat version, with fewer additives.
- Low-carb- While certain lower carb lifestyles may improve health, many highly processed low-carb foods are typically in the same category as other highly processed foods and should be treated as such.
- Gluten-free- This does not equate to being healthy. The product simply does not contain wheat, spelt, rye, or barley. Some gluten-free foods are still highly processed and contain large amounts of fats or sugar. If you choose to eat (or you are clinically required to eat, eg. celiac) a gluten-free diet, carefully read the label and ingredients before purchasing.
The Bottom Line
The best way to avoid being misled by product labels is to minimize consumption of processed foods. When you do purchase packaged products, be careful to always read the nutrition label and ingredients, in order to make an informed and educated decision. Where possible, focus on consuming natural whole foods, plenty of vegetables, lean proteins, some fruit and remember to keep hydrated with water.