How To Read A Nutrition Label

I can’t tell you what to eat and what not to eat.

But I can give you tips on how to choose healthier options and how to read a food label.

This won’t be an exhaustive list. I don’t know your specific diet and I can’t tell you your macronutrient breakdown, but I can help you learn what is important and what isn’t on a Nutrition label. Hopefully, I can take out some of the guesswork when it comes to reading Ingredients and Nutrition Facts!

Another thing to note: The rules and regulations around food servings and Nutrition may be slightly different than that of your community. In some countries, by law, all prepackaged foods must have a Nutrition Facts table and an ingredient list. They may also have nutrition claims, but those are optional.

Let’s get into it!


Serving Size.

Nutrition Facts table

Source: unlockfood.ca

You’ll find the Serving Size at the top of the Nutrition Facts table. On this example Fact sheet, you’ll see that 1 cup (250 mL) is a serving size. Some foods may be easier to consume in the appropriate serving sizes, but watch out for processed foods like chips and cookies. The serving sizes are guidelines determined by the Food and Drug Administration. They intended to give consumers an idea of a typical amount that could be eaten at one time.

Don’t mix up SERVING SIZE with PORTION SIZE. These are different things.

A Serving Size is a standardized amount of food that can be used to quantify recommended amounts. A Portion Size is the amount of food you choose to eat, which can be more or less than a serving. For example, a serving of Greek Yogurt is usually 3/4 cups. I easily eat at least 1 cup of Greek yogurt when given the chance.


% DV or Daily Value

I love using this to remind myself how nutrient deficient so many prepackaged foods can be. That doesn’t mean I don’t buy/eat those foods. Many times, the ones that have the least nutrients are also the least expensive, so, unfortunately, those are often my options.

Typically, 5% DV (daily value) is low in nutrients (almost void), and anything over 15% DV is a lot of that nutrient. DV acts as a benchmark to determine if that food is high or low in any certain nutrient. Looking at the Nutrition Fact table above, this product is low in all nutrients, high in carbohydrates (in the form of sugar), and likely junk food (or even breakfast cereal).

What should I be looking for?

Look for foods high in % of your Daily Value: Vitamins A and C, Carbohydrates in the form of Fiber, Protein, Calcium, and Iron.

For the health-conscious, try to reduce or avoid too much fat (Saturated or Trans), Sodium, Cholesterol.


Don’t be fooled by ‘Healthy’ junk food.

I won’t go too deep into this topic but will lead you to a link to a show that I really enjoy. CBC Marketplace has some great little segments about news, tips and tricks to shop smarter and protect yourself from scams, and more. They expose the truth on stories that matter to you! The reason I’m bringing it up is that in this segment, they go over Food Fiction, and all the ways the Junk Food Industry is trying to trick us into buying things labeled as Gluten-Free, Heart-Healthy, and Smart.

They go over products like Nutella (a breakfast classic), Campbells Health Request Soup, 100% Fruit Bars, and “Smart” Kraft Dinner. It’s kind of corny, but I love it because they serve you straight facts and call out big-name brands that are misleading their consumers.

Don’t judge a book by its cover – Be careful what you’re picking up.

Don’t fall for the picture on the box or bag. You NEED to read the Nutrition Facts and Ingredients so you know what you’re actually getting and whether it’s worth it. For example: KD Smart is a Kraft Dinner that’s healthier for you (High fiber, Omega-3, Flax, and more), so you’d expect them to be healthier. When you look at the Vitamins and Minerals, Fiber, and Omega-3 you’re getting in there, you would need 177 servings to get the Omega-3 you’d get in one portion of Salmon. That’s extremely misleading!


When in doubt, compare.

I find it helpful to grab two different products to compare their nutrition labels. Even with years of experience being fooled by sneaky marketing ploys and learning what is healthier for me, I do this to understand exactly what is in my food and learn how to help my clients.

I do this with anything that comes in a package, but especially with products that I think will have extra fillers. I like to check things like burger patties (especially the vegetarian variety!), bread, Ice cream (I eat a lot of this, but take a look at the difference between Regular and Low-Fat options), and more. I look for ingredients like SOY, POTASSIUM BROMATE, CARRAGEENAN, and CELLULOSE. You can find out more about those ingredients here.


Less is better.

Not so much in terms of Quantity over Quality, rather, you’re looking for Quality over Quantity. You know what you get when you buy a banana or an apple. GMOs aside, when you buy a fruit or vegetable, you’re just getting the fruit or vegetable and no other ingredients. No need for a food label.

But when you buy pre-packaged/prepped food, you may need to look a little deeper. One thing I try to remember is this: The fewer ingredients, the better.

Here are some examples of foods that usually have added sugar:

woman putting ketchup on her burger

  • Tomato sauce for pasta (many jarred pasta sauces can fall anywhere between 7-12 grams)
  • Salad Dressing
  • Low-fat yogurt
  • Most condiments (BBQ sauce, Ketchup)
  • Milk (white or chocolate)
  • Granola/Cereal (even the stuff labeled as high in fiber!) –> low-fat Raisin Bran contains up to 18g of sugar per serving!
  • Bread (Ideally, bread shouldn’t contain more than two grams of sugar per slice)

Keep in mind that when you’re reading an ingredient list, the ingredients are listed in order of weight. The ingredient that weighs the most will be first, and the ingredient that weighs the least is last. This trick has helped me in a pinch when comparing two different products. If I grab a loaf of bread and one has sugar as the 3rd ingredient but the other lists it as the very last ingredient, I’m going for the 2nd option. Your choice will depend on what matters more to you. If a product has more of one ingredient, it may be lacking in another, so you will have to make a decision at that point.

ingredient list on a label


What to look out for.

Sugars: A high intake of added sugars may increase the risk of several diseases, including obesity, heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and cancer. This includes plain sugar, malt syrup, evaporated cane juice, high fructose corn syrup, dextrose, brown sugar syrup, fruit juices, just to name a few. But also beware of sugar alcohols such as glycerin and maltitol. They’re commonly used in protein bars to keep the sugar counts lower but aren’t great for your gut.

Oils: Specifically Refined Vegetable and Seed Oils, these processed vegetable and seed oils contain omega-6 fats. Most people are eating too much of these fats already, the average person eating up to 16x as many omega-6 fats as omega-3 fats, which may lead to several health problems. As mentioned in my blog titled “Calories or Macros? Which one is best?“, these oils are known as empty calories.

BPA: BPA is a chemical commonly found in plastic and canned items. It may increase the risk of infertility, insulin resistance, and disease. Although it is difficult to find canned products that are affordable and BPA-free, you have other options! For example, instead of canned beans, you could go for dried beans instead. Instead of reusing plastic water bottles, swap them out for aluminum or glass.

Trans Fats: Many studies have found that trans fats are highly inflammatory and increase the risk of heart disease and other conditions. Our bodies do not recognize or process trans fats the same way as we would naturally occurring fats. Instead, try using butter, lard, or tallow as fat additives or for cooking, which are higher in saturated fat. Limiting these kinds of fat (trans and saturated) is important, especially if you don’t follow a high-fat diet. You can also take a look at this list of Vegan options!

Food Coloring: Although food coloring makes some food look more fun, it doesn’t make them ok for consumption. There are six artificial food dyes that are approved by both the FDA and the EFSA. Red 40, Yellow 5, and Yellow 6 are the most common. Quinoline Yellow, Carmoisine, and Ponceau are examples of food colorings allowed in the EU but banned in the US. I wonder why…


Conclusion

I hope this has cleared up some misconceptions about nutrition labels, ingredient lists, and “healthy” snacks. I know that my parents fell for these sneaky tricks and packed these options for our lunches, which my brother and I gladly took to school because they were tasty! Now we know why.

hand reaching for chips

All we can do now is learn from our mistakes and try our best. Will we always buy the healthiest, most nutritious foods for our families? Probably not. Until food is more affordable and accessible for all, this is just a quick guide into how to read food labels and make more informed decisions about where your money is going.

Did you learn something new today? Have you made some of these mistakes in the past? I know I have! Even something as innocent as a Clif bar every day as a snack… with my health and fitness goals, I had to switch that over to a once-in-a-while treat. Let me know if you’ve made any changes to your grocery list now that you’ve read this article by leaving me a comment down below!


Resources:

  • https://www.fda.gov/food/new-nutrition-facts-label/how-understand-and-use-nutrition-facts-label
  • https://www.unlockfood.ca/en/Articles/Nutrition-Labelling/Understanding-Food-Labels-in-Canada.aspx
  • https://www.eatright.org/food/nutrition/nutrition-facts-and-food-labels/the-basics-of-the-nutrition-facts-label
  • https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/7-food-toxins-that-are-concerning#TOC_TITLE_HDR_3
  • https://www.eatright.org/food/nutrition/nutrition-facts-and-food-labels/serving-size-vs-portion-size-is-there-a-difference
  • https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/food-dyes#TOC_TITLE_HDR_3

Alexia Palmeri

Alexia Palmeri is a 28-year-old personal development enthusiast! She looks at life experiences as an opportunity to always learn and grow. Alexia is also a broadcast journalism graduate with a passion and knack for communications and media. She is always on the lookout for new trends on social media and keeps up to date with what's happening in the world. In her free time, Alexia enjoys socializing with family and loved ones, being in nature, cooking nourishing meals, and discovering new places to dine and adventure!

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