Having been a label reader for decades, it never occurred to me that there would be so many people who never do it. In my clinical work at the hospital, I educate people on diets they need to follow, and label reading is always a component. I am surprised at how many people are being introduced to the concept for the first time.
There are a few important things to know, right off the bat:
- All nutrition information is not on the label. The important ones, as they relate to dietary restrictions, are listed.
- Don’t assume the counts listed are for the whole package. The amounts of nutrients in the food item are stated per portion. You need to also look at how many servings are in that package, measure against how many portions you are consuming, and do the math to get the actual count.
- There is a nutrient panel, and an ingredients section.
At some point in most people’s lives they will be told they need to restrict a certain element or ingredient. Being prepared will make the transition less difficult. Let’s now delve into the world of label reading.
THE NUTRITION FACT PANEL:
First you will find the serving size and the number of servings in the container. This is where the math is important when calculating how much of nutrient you are getting. If the container holds 2 servings and you eat the whole container, you need to double the numbers in the nutrition listing.
The next fact is the calories (again, per serving), and how many of the calories are from fat.
The next section addresses fat/cholesterol, sodium, carbs, protein and several vitamins and minerals. The information is stated in grams (g)) or milligrams (mg) and as a % of the recommended daily value. Assuming about 3 meals per day, the total of all you consume for that meal would ideally not exceed one third of your daily value, particularly in calories, fats and sodium. Let me dissect the subsections for more useful information.
Fats are all not created equal! Healthy fats include mono saturated (like olive oil), polyunsaturated and unsaturated fats. These are the most likely to be in liquid form at room temperature (many oils). Unhealthy fats are saturated, with trans fats being the most unhealthy. These are usually solid at room temperature (think of butter, lard, shortenings). Healthy fats raise HDL (good) cholesterol in the blood and lower LDL (bad) cholesterol. Conversely, saturated fats do the opposite, clogging the arteries with fatty deposits that can lead to the blockage of blood flow. Blockages put one at significant risk for heart attacks and strokes. Make it a point to avoid any foods with trans fats, also listed in the ingredients as partially hydrogenated oils. Cholesterol is a type of fat that our bodies also produce. Currently, there is conflicting thought about the ingestion of cholesterol causing high cholesterol in the blood. Some now believe that the saturated fat causes our bodies to produce more cholesterol.
Sodium (the main carrier is table salt) is everywhere! Sodium is an electrolyte, important for the regulation of many bodily functions, but Americans consume unhealthy amounts of it. Long used as a preservative, it is used in canning, processed meats (hot dogs, cold cuts, etc.) baked goods, pizza, restaurants, prepared supermarket foods and more. Even if you never lift a salt shaker, chances are you are still getting too much sodium. It is hard to avoid unless you prepare all your food at home, from fresh ingredients. Too much sodium raises blood pressure, putting a strain on the arteries and other body functions. It leads to heart disease, stroke, congestive heart failure, breathing difficulties, edema (swelling and water retention). The recommended daily amount in an otherwise healthy individual is no more than 2,200 mg per day, but less is better. For those already afflicted with maladies affected by sodium, 1,800mg or fewer is the recommendation.
Carbohydrates, which include fiber and sugar are listed in the next sub section. Counting carbs is especially important for the diabetic. We will not cover this here as the subject is far too complex for this post. There are 2 basic kinds of carbs: simple and complex. Simple sugars (many of the ingredients listed with an “ose” at the end) absorb quickly into the bloodstream, causing spikes in blood glucose levels. This in turn floods the bloodstream with insulin, beginning an erratic spike and lowering of blood glucose levels, which is taxing on the body in a variety of ways. In contrast, complex carbohydrates (found in fiber and whole grains, not refined) absorb more gradually, lessening the rapid spiking and falling of blood glucose levels. This longer acting reaction supplies steadier energy and less fat storage. (Unused energy from carbs is stored as fat.) So look for at least 3 grams of fiber per serving. More is better. Stick with whole grains vs. refined – explained further in the next section.
Protein, vitamins and minerals are listed next. This is more informational, and less of an issue when watching certain potentially harmful elements.
The last section is the ingredient list. The ingredients are listed in order of quantity, from most to least. Study the list for partially hydrogenated oils (and reject foods with this ingredient), extra sugars (look for the suffix “ose”), additives that are unhealthy preservatives, etc. (again, this is another whole topic). If you have allergies, study this section carefully to learn if the contaminant is present. You need to learn all the names by which your allergen goes, to ensure you don’t ingest it. Many packages now state if the product is made in a facility that makes other products with the more common allergens like tree nuts, peanuts, milk, etc. Look for whole grains in your breads. If the listing says, “wheat flour”, it is not whole. It needs to say whole wheat. Corn, quinoa and oats are whole grains.
Well that about wraps up Label-Reading 10. I’d be happy to answer any questions you may have. Just post to comments.