Food Label Made Simple

Understanding food labels is essential to your health

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If you’re an avid Prime magazine reader, you may have noticed that in the July issue we tackled the controversial subject surrounding health claims accompanying most food packaging. It’s hard to discuss health claims without diving into the many nuisances of a food label. Therefore, in this month’s issue, we will examine how to read a food label.

It’s no surprise that nutrition is the foundation of good health and a disease-free lifestyle. Did you know that chronic diseases like Type 2 diabetes and hypertension are reversible and can be managed effectively with appropriate nutritional habits? In fact, Type 2 diabetes is a disease of lifestyle, meaning it resulting from faulty eating habits, lack of physical activity and a healthy lifestyle or lack thereof. Generally speaking, the health community has identified chronic diseases such as cognitive disorders, mood disorders, gastrointestinal issues, certain cancers, bone disorders and hypertension to name a few results from unhealthy eating habits. Therefore, being able to read a food label accurately is the first of many steps required when embarking on a healthy eating way of life.

Decoding A Food Label

While there’s a lot of information on what seems like a small graphic with random numbers and promising health claims on the back of your favorite food packaging, there’s a lot of clinical information on that graphic. Here are a few simple tips to help you efficiently scan the label to support your health goals.

To begin with, ingredients listed on the food label are in the order of predominance. Meaning, if sugar is the first ingredient, then that is what overpowers the remaining ingredients on the list by weight and nutritionally as well. Serving sizes are probably the most misunderstood of all information available on a food label. The serving (single) size on the package is not the amount of food you should eat. It is the amount of food that a typical eater consumes during a single eating occasion based on many research findings. Don’t use this number to decide how much food to consume. Instead, this number should be utilized only to determine how many calories are in a typical serving of that food. To find out exactly how much of that particular food could be consumed is based on your individual health requirements and goals. Similarly, when tracking calories, pay close attention to the ingredient list. For example, a candy bar may have fewer calories in comparison to an avocado. However, most of the calories in the avocado are comprised of good fats that have vital roles to play within the body, as opposed to candy, which is concentrated with empty calories.

Information provided on a food label is based on a 2,000 calorie diet. However, the recommended daily calories for each individual is comprised of many factors including weight, age, gender, height and overall health status. Therefore, blindly consuming the suggested servings or calories as listed on a label may not serve the purpose if someone has been recommended to consume higher or lower than the suggested 2,000 calories a day.

Just Because It Shines Doesn’t Mean It’s Gold

When reading a food label, often there’s a lot of focus on carbohydrates and fats. Whether you are a health junkie or temporarily avoiding carbs and fats, knowing how to decode this information on the label can be helpful. Typically, when we refer to carbs on a food label, we include any additional sugars that may have been added to the recipe, natural sugars present in the inherent ingredients of the recipe and fiber count. (If you are wondering “why fiber?”, the answer is that it’s a form of carb, and therefore must be included on the food label as an integral part of the “total carbohydrate” count.) The label may claim no “sugars’ were added, and yet if you look over the ingredient list, different forms of sugars may be found in the recipe since technically, there are more than 67 different names that sugar can be disguised within the recipe. The moral here is that jumping to conclusions about the “healthy” factor of any food product purchased by merely looking at the numbers on the food label may not allow you to see the complete picture.

Another example I use to depict this fact is when you reach for “low fat” or “reduced fat” options. While it may appear that the product has fewer calories being contributed by fat in comparison to its counterpart, if you look closely, often you will find that while “total fat’ may seem low, the “saturated” and “trans” fat counts are higher than the “monounsaturated” fats or good fats, or, the recipe has additional sugars added to make-up for the lost “fat”. Thus, this food product is a recipe for health disasters like heart disease and high LDL or bad cholesterol

The Bottom Line

As a health professional, I teach everyone to focus on the nutrient contribution of any food you choose to consume. The daily percent value listed on the food label will help you determine if that particular food item is high or low in a particular nutrient. Generally, a percent daily value of 5 percent or less means that the food is low in that nutrient and a value of 20 percent or more means that the food is high in the nutrient. This means if you want to increase fiber intake, ensuring that the serving provides upwards of 20 percent is essential. Educating yourself of the ingredients will allow you to make informed decisions when it comes to picking the best foods for yourself and your family.

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