Food labels are something we all encounter pretty much every day. But how much do you really know about them? I can’t remember if we learn to read them in high school, but I highly doubt it. At this point, I think most people know how to read labels in general but interpreting the info may be a little confusing. So, I wanted to fill you guys in on what all that shit means plus what you should actually pay attention to.
First, I want to say that I absolutely do not want you to get sucked into obsessively counting calories, or even macros for that matter. While the caloric value of food is important (as is the constitution of nutrients in them), it is not the most important aspect of food. We’ll get into that more in a minute.
With that said, let’s get into the label.
Food labels on packaged food products can tell you a few things, like:
- How many calories are in a single serving of the product (you can find what is considered a serving size at the very top of the label) Side note: Most people eat way more than the recommended serving size, and that’s partially because some food manufacturers are sneaky and want to make their product appear healthier. That’s gotten better over the years, and they are more likely to list the normal serving a person would actually eat. Like, who eats one cookie? No one. That’s who.
- The amounts of macronutrients (carbohydrates, fats and proteins) in that serving
- The cholesterol and sodium counts
- The amounts of some vitamins
- The ingredients in the product
You’ll also notice a column that says % Daily Value. This information assumes a 2,000-calorie diet and tells you what percentage of each nutrient you are consuming in one serving, based on that daily limit. This can quickly tell you if the amount is high or low. For example, if the fat content of a food has a 50% DV, that means that one serving of that food is half your recommended intake of fat for the day. If you don’t eat 2,000 calories a day, this number is inaccurate.
Good vs Evil
To know whether a product is “good” or “bad”, it really depends on your goals. You can look to a nutrition label to inform you on the fat or sugar content of a food, for example. If you are trying to decrease your total fat intake, this is a good place to start.
But to really get a better idea of whether a food is something you want to consume, I want you to look to the ingredient list.
(Remember when I said there are more important things on nutrition labels than calories? Yeah, this is it.)
Are there more than a few ingredients listed? Can you pronounce them? Are they organic?
The calorie count and amounts of fat, protein or carbs may be important when it comes to certain health goals – like lowering your blood pressure or losing weight – but the ingredients in the foods you eat are ALWAYS important. ALWAYS.
If you’re eating packaged foods, always go for the least amount of ingredients.
And while we are on the subject of “good” vs “bad” – there are a lot of people (and even some nutritionists) who believe that as long as you’re getting the “right” amount of calories and nutrients, there is no such thing as good or bad foods, which is fine. But, there IS a difference between a real, whole food and a processed, fake-ass food. If the majority of ingredients in a food are processed, lab-made chemicals, I wouldn’t consider that food.
What if the product TELLS me it’s good for me?!
Some other things to look for on labels and the front of packages is stuff like health claims. This can be shit like “heart healthy,” “gluten-free,” “a good source of fiber,” “low-fat,” or “a good source of vitamins.”
Now, I want you to use your head when you read these claims.
Yes, pop-tarts are fucking delicious, and they may very well have 7 vitamins and minerals in them and be cholesterol-free. But do you know what else they have in them? A shit-ton of sugar and chemicals. There is only 10% ACTUAL fruit in there!
You know what else is cholesterol-free? Anything that isn’t an animal product.
So, the moral of the story is, don’t rely on the labels, put there by people who are trying to sell you something, to make nutritional judgments.
That is all.
Ok, so what do I do?
Alright, here’s the situation. You’re in the grocery store. You are staring down an aisle of 745 different packages. All you want is some fucking crackers, but now you feel like all you see are lies! Not true. Not all nutrition labels are trying to lie to you. There are some perfectly good, packaged products that are actually everything they say they are.
What you need to do now is look at the nutrition label and ask yourself these questions.
- Does this fit within my nutrition goal based on the numbers?
- Are there more than 5 ingredients?
- Can I pronounce all of them?
- Do I even like this food?
At first, when you start reading nutrition labels, it can be overwhelming. But once you get the hang of it, it’s really not so bad.
What do you think? Was this helpful information? Let me know in the comments!