In an ideal world, we’d have the time to cook every one of our meals from scratch using only the freshest, healthiest ingredients. But realistically—between juggling school, work, friends, family, and other responsibilities—most of us resort to prepackaged food a little more often than we’d like to. That said, eating packaged snacks isn’t the worst thing in the world. If you have a good handle on how to read a food label, you can make sure that even your packaged meal options are as close as possible nutritionally to the food you would choose to make at home.
Today I’m sharing a few tips to help you decode those ubiquitous food labels. Reading the Nutrition Facts can feel a little like trying to decipher a secret code. There are numbers and percentages, and you’re not sure which ones to pay attention to and which ones to ignore.
Start With Serving Size
Serving size is perhaps the most important thing to look at when you’re reading a food label. The serving size influences every other number that follows, so ask yourself how many servings you are actually eating. If the serving size is 1 cup and you’re eating 2, you will be doubling every other nutrient number on the label as well. Unhealthy snack foods are notorious for listing much smaller serving sizes than what the average person ends up eating. So, if you are going to gobble up that whole ‘snack size’ bag of chips, at least beware that there may actually be 2.5 servings per bag according to the manufacturer.
Make Your Kilojoules Count
Many people are in the habit of counting kj’s and ignoring the rest of the label. But what are kj’s exactly and how much do they matter? Kilojoules provide a measure of how much energy (heat) your body gets from a serving of food. Keeping track of kj’s is indeed one factor that can help you manage your weight (lose weight, gain weight, or maintain it). But it is by no means the only number that matters. Instead of just counting kj, focus on how nutrient dense a food is. If it has lots of protein, fiber, healthy fats and vitamins in a moderate number of calories, it’s a good, healthy choice. Consuming ‘empty kilojoules,’ or foods with little nutritional value, is the thing to avoid.
Pay Less Attention to Recommended Dietary Intakes (RDI)
The Reference Daily Intake or Recommended Daily Intake (RDI) is the daily intake level of a nutrient that is considered to be sufficient to meet the requirements of 97–98% of healthy individuals. The amount of kilojoules a person actually needs will vary depending on a number of significant factors such as age, gender, physically activity, goals, and countless other factors.The Nutrient Reference Value’s (NRV’s) for Australia and New Zealand have a website that provides excellent information regarding nutrients, dietary energy and energy requirements for individuals of different groups. However, it is important not to over think those percentages, and just focus on choosing whole foods with a good dose of protein, healthy fats, and fiber.
Know That Not All Fats Are Bad Fats
Fats are listed first on the Nutrition Facts, and they’re also the thing that most people are afraid of, however, you don’t need to be fat-phobic if your aware of what fat actually is and how to differentiate good fats from your bad fats. The good fats can provide the body’s precursors for hormones, increases insulin sensitivity and improves skin health. Trans fats and Saturated fats are the bad fats to look out for. If you would like more information on fats in the diet, See our Macronutrient Series on fats Part 1 and Part 2.
Get the Skinny on Sugar, Carbs, and Fiber
Since there is no percent listed for sugar, it can be even trickier to tell whether the amount of sugar per serving is a lot or a little. Many people might be surprised to hear that 4 grams of sugar equals about one teaspoon. So that a can of soda with 40 grams of sugar? That’s a whopping 10 teaspoons of added sugar! Sugar does nothing to nourish your body, so it is full of the empty calories I mentioned before. Avoiding added sugar is important in items like yogurt, tomato sauce, protein bars and condiments. But what many people don’t know is that all carbohydrates (except fiber) break down to glucose or blood sugar. The kicker here is fiber; fiber doesn’t turn to glucose, so the more fiber a product has the less carbohydrates are turned to glucose. Instead of being afraid of carbohydrates too, just choose natural sources of carbohydrates that are also high in fiber like root vegetables. If you would like more information regarding sugar, be sure to check out our blog post Macronutrient Series on Carbohydrates that take an in-depth look into sugars and how the body utilises them.
Keep an Eye on Ingredients
Keep an eye out for a few red flag ingredients that are common in processed foods. With nut milk’s increasing popularity, it is important to avoid carrageenan, an additive that is linked to intestinal permeability (leaky gut), gastrointestinal inflammation and malignant tumors. Nut milks without carrageenan may be easier to find in the refrigerated section than among the shelf-stable cartons. Also, try to steer clear of cheap oils like safflower, sunflower, soybean and cottonseed oils. These oils have recently been replacing trans fats in a lot of foods, but they’re no better for you. Avoiding these is a great way to try and balance out fatty acids in the body. And as a general rule, the fewer ingredients you can’t pronounce, the better! It’s likely that many of them are preservatives and chemical additives.
One of the best ways to make healthy food choices is to comparison shop. Unless you’re a nutritionist, it can be hard to look at a food label in isolation and know whether it’s good for you or not. But if you are comparing two similar items side-by-side and notice that one is higher in fiber and protein but lower in sodium than the other, you can at least feel confident that you are making the healthier choice.
I hope you now feel a little more confident navigating the frozen or snack food aisle!
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