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How to Read a Nutrition Label: The Quick Course

May 9, 2012

I recently ran some analytics on this blog and discovered that my post “On Speed-reading Nutrition Labels” is just about the most popular thing I’ve ever written. Unfortunately, that post simply chides people for not spending more time reading labels, when what folks are really looking for, I think, is information on how to do that. I’m putting together an online course called “How to Read a Nutrition Label.” If you’re interested in finding out when this is available, email me at paula.nutritionu [at] gmail.com. Until then, here’s a whirlwind tour of nutrition labels.

One important thing to look at on a label is serving size. Many consumers skip down and just look at the nutrients. In fact, the nutrients list can trick us into thinking that, for example, a product is fairly low-sodium or low-sugar. But the serving size might only be, say, 1/2 cup, and you might normally eat two “servings” at a sitting, as in when you have a bowl of cereal.

The macronutrient content – protein, fat and carbs, including fiber – of processed foods is an important part of the label. If you’re trying to lose weight, protein with every meal and snack can help curb your cravings for unhealthy foods. Many of us eat too many empty-calorie carbs – that means you’re only getting calories without any beneficial nutrients – and ideally you want fiber to be part of your carb intake. Fat content is broken down on the label so that consumers can see if the product contains any harmful trans fats, and also to show the mix of saturated and unsaturated fats.

Other things to look for in processed foods include sodium and potassium. To control blood pressure, we need more potassium than sodium in our diets, as a ratio of about 2:1, so the label can also inform us what the ratio in a particular product is. In addition, we can monitor the hidden sugar content of food products through the nutrient list. “Sugar” goes by other names, including barley malt, brown sugar, corn syrup or sweetener, dextrose, evaporated can juice, fructose, the dreaded high-fructose corn syrup, honey, lactose, malt syrup, maltose, molasses, rice syrup, sucrose, sorghum, and sugar syrups like mannitol and xylitol, to name a few.

Another piece of vital information on a label is the ingredients list. The fewer the ingredients, the better. For example, I buy organic peanut butter whose only ingredient is raw ground peanuts. Next, if there is a longer list, what is the first ingredient? Is it something like stoneground whole wheat, or is it sugar? Are there different ingredients ending in “-ose,” which indicate hidden sugars? Are there colorings and other ingredients that you can’t even identify? I look at the ingredients list first to see if the product is worth buying and exactly how processed it is.

Here’s a label of a popular breakfast cereal.

(click to enlarge)

After reading this post, can you tell why I wouldn’t recommend it, even though it makes certain health claims? If you’re still puzzled, look for my online class in the near future.

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