We often buy food items based on how they would taste.
If you want to be healthy then there is something else that you must base your purchase on.
Base your purchase on the nutritional value of the product.
This becomes even more important if you are buying packaged food.
But how can find out the nutritional value of the packaged products?
Think about how you do it. Maybe you think that a product is healthy if the words like “natural” or “fat-free” are mentioned somewhere on the package. But even when the package has the word natural and fat-free – what is inside may not be good for your body.
Hence, it is a mistake to rely on packaging words and images when making a decision about the nutritional value of a particular food product.
Many brands use these words on their packaging in a clever way to dupe customers.
Consumers must learn how to weed out the bad and choose what is good for them.
The only way to know what you are eating is healthy for you or not is by learning to read nutritional labels or nutritional facts labels.
Understanding Nutrition (Facts) Labels
Before we dig deeper, let’s get the basics out of our way first.
Nutritional labels are:
- usually added as a black and white box on packages of food.
- designed so that the consumers would have the right information about the food they eat.
- show the nutrients in food which are required to keep us healthy.
This label shows the value of particular nutrients in a pack in in g (grams) or mg (milligrams). It also shows the percentage of daily nutritional requirement mentioned as daily value (DV) of a particular nutrient – next to the quantity of that particular nutrient in a package.
For example, if one serving organic cookies provides 50gms of carbohydrates, and daily value (dv) requirement of carbohydrates is 250 gms. Then you will see a column on the label that will say “% of daily value” and under it next to carbohydrate row, you will see 20% because – 50gms is 20% of 250gms (daily requirement).
Through this, you come to know about how much nutrient intake you can get by eating that particular food.
Unlike most of us, nutritional experts know a lot about how much a key nutrient is needed every day, and pay attention to this fact on a label.
We only look at the calorie and fat content because we think this is what matters the most.
Let us take a closer look at a typical nutritional label so that next time when you are out in supermarket or the neighborhood store, you will make an informed purchase and buy stuff that’s healthy.
This is how a nutritional label looks like.
(*The image is used for example. The actual values will differ as per product.)
It has a list of ingredients. This is mentioned as ingredients on the label. Imagine, you are making a cake at home. You would require certain ingredients to make a cake like flour, eggs, butter, sugar etc. The ingredients are combined together to make the finished product like a yummy cake. Similarly, this ingredients list on the nutritional label displays what ingredients went into making that packaged food items. Pay attention and read this list, to make sure the product is made up of healthy ingredients. It also guides you to know whether there is something that you are allergic to.
If you find an ingredient that is hard to decode or is full of items that you do not know or understand – stay away from it.
Let us look at the other terms on the nutritional label.
At the top of the label, there is serving size. This is displayed in a form like 76g, 4 cookies or 3 ounces of juice. It also mentions how many servings a packet offers. All other nutrients are listed based on this.
Now let us learn to decode various terms on a nutritional label.
Calories give our body energy. It is important to know how many calories are there in your food because eating too many can make you gain weight. On a nutritional label, calories per serving are mentioned.
This is very important to understand because most of us make a big mistake here.
Because if you assume calorie per serving equal to the calories present in the pack, then you may end up eating the whole packet and stress your system with way more than what is required by your body.
For example, in the image below the total calories present in one serving are 230. One container contains 8 servings. If you eat the contents of whole containers you’ll end up eating, 230 X 8 gms = 1840 Calories.
This is a clever marketing trick that you should be aware of.
The label also mentions that out 230 calories per servings, 40 calories are from fat. That means about 17% [(40/230)X 100] of the calories for this food product come from fat.
In order to limit your calorie intake from packaged food, choose a product which offers somewhere between 100 -400 grams of calories. Beyond 400 grams the product is considered as high in calories.
Next on the list is total fat. Our body uses fat to grow and develop but eating too much fat is unhealthy. You might see different kinds of fats listed on nutrition facts label such as saturated, unsaturated and trans fat. These different fats have different effects on body. The number represents the total fat in one serving and the percentage represents the percentage based on a 2000 calorie diet.
Saturated fat is not much of a concern. This is healthy fat. But what you should look at is the amount of trans fat. Trans fat raise bad cholesterol in your body and reduces good cholesterol increases the risk of heart diseases and stroke. It is also associated with higher risk of diabetes. Avoid this at all costs.
You’ll notice that many times, not all types of fats present in the product are mentioned on the label. These are generally good to eat fats. These fats are monounsaturated fats, polyunsaturated fats, omega 3 fatty acids and omega 6 fatty acids.
Cholesterol and Sodium
It is important to keep a check on cholesterol and sodium intake especially if you have issues with your heart and suffer from hypertension. Packaged food contains a high level of sodium. The value is based on one serving.
The %DV tells you how much of a Sodium is in one serving of a food. When comparing and choosing foods, pick the food with a lower %DV of sodium. As a general rule:
- 5% DV or less of sodium per serving is low
- 20% DV or more of sodium per serving is high
This is how you should calculate, how much sodium you are consuming based on listed value. Suppose, the daily value of sodium is 2.5g per day, and one serving offers 800 mg sodium than one serving will provide about 33% of dv (the total intake needed).
Avoid frozen and canned food products, they are very high in sodium.
These are also used by the body to create energy. They are usually broken down into the dietary fiber (good carb) and sugar (one should limit this to keep the body healthy). Have you ever picked up a food product with ‘Sugar- free” mentioned? If yes, then you are making a big mistake. Because most of the sugar-free products have artificial sweeteners which have other side effects.
People who have diabetes should pay attention to the carbohydrate section of the nutritional label. Just as trans fat, sugars are also linked with many health problems. Where as good amount of dietary fiber is good for health as it helps in digestion and provides satisfaction from meals.
Proteins are the main building blocks of our body. Our body uses proteins to build strong muscles and to keep the organs and blood healthy. Recommended daily intake suggests you should be eating 0.8 grams per body weight which are approximately 46 grams for an average woman. This is how you calculate how much protein you should be eating every day.
Other Key Nutrients
This section has a listing of important nutrients at the bottom such as vitamins, calcium and iron. These nutrients are important to keep your eyes, immune system, skin, hair, heart, bones, teeth and muscles healthy.
Usually, the amount of nutrients is so low as compared to dv that you would need to focus on other sources such as fruits and vegetables to fulfill your daily requirement of these nutrients.
.The rest of the nutritional facts contain information about how much each category should have.
Lastly on some labels, you will see calories per grams for each nutrient. Where fat contains 9 calories per gram and carbohydrate and proteins contain 4 calories per gram.
Every 10 gms of Fat = 90 calories (10 Grams X 9 calories from Fat)
Every 10 gms of Carbs / proteins = 40 Calories (10 Grams X 4 Calories from carbs/proteins)
Learning to read a nutrition label, will help you understand if something is healthy not based on assumptions, wonderful packaging or fancy health claims; but based on facts.
When you are trying to assess whether the product is healthy for you or not, do consider the health halo effect which is when people tend to assume that food is healthy based on one aspect of a food — say, it’s high in omega-3s.
The food must be healthy as a whole. Ignoring the fact that it also has 100 grams of sugar, two days’ worth of saturated fats, and enough salt to equivalent to 3 days required quantity. You’ll see green-accented packaging, signs, and pop-outs that will try to convince you that you really need that low-fat, gluten-free yogurt but in reality, it is a lot of calories per serving.
By now I’m sure you know just because your cupcake says it’s gluten-free or sugar-free doesn’t mean it is healthy. It could be, but only if you’ve read the label – but don’t decide until you’ve read the nutritional label.
Do you think reading this post will help you in making healthy choices in future? Let us know by writing a yes or no in comments.