I’m forever looking for new snacks or products to try out. The other day I found myself browsing through the supermarket and picked up a bag of chips that sounded healthy — I mean, it had “veggie” in its name. The brand name itself suggested that the chips would be made of vegetables, or at least contain them somewhere in the ingredients list.
But man, was that misleading.
When I flipped over to read the nutrition label and ingredients list, I found there were no veggies in the chips. The closest thing the chips had to vegetables was the “vegetable flavourings” that were added.
If you’re sitting there in shock, I’m sorry to tell you, this is more common than you might think.
Despite having strict rules around the nutrition and health claims that can be found on the package, there are many loopholes that allow brands to sound healthier than they really are.
This brings me to the whole point of this blog post, reading nutrition labels.
Why to Read Nutrition Facts Labels
We can use nutrition facts labels to determine,
- How nutrient- or calorie-dense a product is
- Find out what is actually in the product
- Compare different products to chose the healthier one (for ourselves — remember we all have different nutrient needs).
So how do we do it?
Steps for Reading Nutrition Facts Labels
1. Check out the Serving Size
I personally like to take a top-down approach to reading nutrition labels. Other people may prefer to begin with the ingredients first and then move onto serving size — to each their own*.
First, I want to point out that the serving size of a product does not dictate how much of it we should eat. There are many other factors that should influence how much of a product we eat — including how hungry we are! The serving size of a product just gives us an idea of how many macro and micronutrients are in the stated amount of the product and allows us to easily compare different products.
When comparing two products, we want to make sure that we are comparing equal serving sizes. Rather than 2/3 cup to 1/2 cup.
*Checking out the ingredients list first may save you some time if you’re looking to avoid certain ingredients due to intolerance or allergies
2. Check the Calories
Although I don’t usually base my final decision on calories, knowing the number of calories in a serving can be useful.
The number of calories in a serving size can tell us whether the food is “nutrient-dense” or “calorie-dense” — again, neither of these is inherently bad. Nutrient-dense simply means the food has a lot of nutrients in it, compared to calories, while calorie-dense means the food has a lot of calories compared to nutrients.
If we are looking for a nutritious snack, we don’t necessarily want to pick up something that is calorie-dense.
3. Look at the Macronutrients
The next thing to check out is the macronutrients. Macronutrients are the 3 essential nutrients that our bodies need in large amounts to function. These include, carbohydrates, fats and proteins.
Nutrition facts labels tell us how many g (or mg) of nutrients are in each suggested serving size, as well as the % DV (daily value). We can use the % DV to determine whether the product is a bad, good or great source of a certain nutrients.
On top of listing the total amount of fat found in a suggested serving, the nutrition facts label breaks fats down into trans-fat and saturated-fat.
Although these are not the only 2 types of fat, this gives you very useful information. Very simply, we want to limited the amount of trans-fat we consume in our diet, while prioritizing unsaturated fats. Trans-fats have been linked to various cancers and the development of cardiovascular disease, while poly-unsaturated fats are believe to have “cardio-protective properties”.
Check out my post, Everything You Need to Know About Fats, to learn more about this macronutrient.
Not all carbs are equal — but this does not make any of them “bad”, or “dirty”.
Carbohydrates are an essential nutrient, that our bodies need to function. Some organs (our brain and heart) can only function off of carbohydrates, so we need them in our diet.
There is tons of information about carbohydrates on the nutrition facts label. On a nutrition facts label, carbohydrates are broken down in 3 categories.
This includes all carbohydrates, from big to small, that can be found in the suggested serving size. It includes complex carbohydrates, dietary fibres and simple sugars.
Dietary fibres are a type of carbohydrate that is resistant to breakdown in our digestive system. They are often classified as soluble and non-soluble fibre. Because of their resistance to digestion, dietary fibre helps us feel “full when eating”.
This category refers to simple sugars. These are sugars that don’t require any digestion and can quickly be absorbed into your body. Sugars are further broken down into “total sugars” (per serving) and “added sugars” (per serving).
Many foods naturally contain sugars, but additional sugar is may be added during processing. This breakdown can be very useful for people trying to limit sugar in their diet.
Proteins are a pretty straight-forward macronutrient, with the nutrition facts label just listing the total amount of protein found in a suggested serving size.
4. Look at the Micronutrients
Finally, I like to check out if the product has any micronutrients. Micronturients are the nutrients that our bodies need in small amounts to function. They include both vitamins and minerals. Check out my Micronutrient Monday series to learn more about micronutrients, including their role in our diet, what happens if we don’t eat enough and where to find them.
Some products that do not naturally contain vitamins or minerals may have nutrients added to them during processing. This is called enrichment and is commonly done with bread, flour and juices. These added vitamins & minerals are just as good for you as if they were naturally found in the food.
In Canada, the nutrition facts label always contains 4 micronutrients — vitamin A, iron, magnesium and vitamin C. These 4 micronutrients have the highest rates of deficiency in North American and are included on the label to highlight them to consumers.
5. Check the Ingredients List
The ingredients list tells us everything that’s in that product. Ingredients are actually listed from most abundant to least abundant. For example, if water is the first ingredient listed, then water is the most abundant ingredient in the product. Flavourings or seasonings added to food products are usually found at the end of the ingredients list as they make up very little of the overall product.
People with allergies or intolerances can look at the ingredients list to find out if any of their triggers are used in the product.
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