Reading through nutrition facts can feel like deciphering hieroglyphics. We want to make healthy decisions, but it’s hard to make sense of the confusing chemical notations, unit conversions and daily value recommendations on food packages. And other labels like “low fat” and “all natural” can be vague and misleading. Seems like a mess, right? Fortunately, like learning a new language, understanding nutrition labels becomes simpler with a few basic vocabulary words.
What is “Fat?”
Not all fats are unhealthy. Unsaturated fats, such as those found in nuts, fish and vegetable oils are healthy and even help reduce LDL cholesterol. Saturated fats, however, can raise cholesterol and should be consumed in moderation (the US Department of Health recommends that only 10% of daily calories come from saturated fat). As of 2006, the FDA also requires that trans fats be listed on all nutrition labels; these are the riskiest types of fats, and are found in many processed foods and snack items. Take a good look at the “total fat” row in the nutrition label, and check to see what portion comes from saturated, unsaturated and trans fats.
The most important item to check for is the “Amount Per Serving.” Everything, including total calories, depends on how the FDA and the manufacturers define one serving. This can lead to confusion when a “portion” (how much we actually eat) differs from the serving size listed on the nutrition facts. For example, one serving of pasta sauce might be 2 Tbsp, but if you plan on eating 6 Tbsp you will need to multiply everything else on the label by three. The same goes if a portion is smaller than one serving, only you should divide instead of multiply.
Try not to confuse calories and calories from fat. An 80-calorie serving might contains 25 calories from fat, or it might contain only 5 calories from fat. That’s a big difference. Check the nutrition label for this information, and multiply by the number of servings you plan to eat to find out how many calories from fat you are actually consuming.
The Labels on Front
- Low-sugar and Low-fat
Again, think in terms of calories. Just because something is “low-fat” or “low-sugar” doesn’t mean it is low in calories. In fact, low-fat foods are often high in sugar, and low-sugar foods are often high in fat. The food manufacturers just compensate with other unhealthy calories.
- Enriched and Fortified
If something has been added, it often means something else has been removed. Foods fortified with vitamins are sometimes deficient in fiber and important minerals in order to reduce the total cost of manufacturing. Check the nutrition facts to check for healthy proportions of all nutrients.
- Natural and Organic
The “natural” label doesn’t mean much of anything, and is not controlled by any health agency. Likewise, many manufacturers claim their food items are organic by their own definitions. Truly organic foods must be certified, so look for the “Certified Organically Grown” label before shelling out the extra money.
Think about using other resources besides the nutrition facts, such as calorie-tracking mobile apps and diet recommendations online. The less you have to read, multiply and think through, the easier it will be to keep a healthy diet.