Six Things You NEED to Look at on that Nutrition Label
I have a pretty standard routine when I go grocery shopping. Much of what determines what I first put in my basket has to do with the design of the store…but more often than not, I hit produce first. Most places I go don’t have labels on their produce, but you may find some, like Trader Joe’s, that are packaged mixes that do have labels. PLEASE still check those out with the following guidelines because companies are sneaky and will throw in odd ingredients even when a product seems to be “whole food”. I come across this often with packaged seeds and nuts. Companies throw in safflower oil, or other hydrogenated, processed vegetable oils that are unfavorable to your health.
Once I stock up on all my bomb fruits and vegetables, I have a few select products I get in the refrigerated dairy area like eggs, grass-fed Kerri gold butter, and plain greek yogurt. Though I am not having dairy for a while, that used to be my routine grabs. Then I hit the meat/poultry/seafood department for that grass-fed, free range, wild goodness. Last, I swing through a couple aisles for dry staples like seasonings, coffee/tea, oils, salsa, corn tortillas and plantain chips if I’m feeling crazy. If you want more information on specifics of my grocery list, I will attach it to this post. No matter what the product, I ALWAYS look at the nutrition label before tossing it in my basket. I find that clients have been so caught up with looking at the macronutrients and calories, that the ingredients and micronutrients are often overlooked or underappreciated.
It is for this reason that I wanted to share the five main things I look at on a nutrition label, and why I think you need to too.
- How many ingredients?
Now, this can be tricky because there are some products out there that have a LOT of ingredients, that may not be so bad. It is important to note that ingredients are listed in the order for which they are most prevalent. With that said, generally speaking, when there are more than 3-5 and you don’t entirely recognize them, you may want to look a little closer at what they are and their purpose. Are they preservatives? Bulking agents? Emulsifiers? Color dyes? Just some natural ingredient you’ve not heard of before? Educate yourself-look it up, talk to me or talk to another educated individual. If you need help on soy lecithin, you can check out my blog on that particular ingredient.
With that said, the number of ingredients is the first thing I look at to determine if I need to start reading every single one and break down the pros/cons. For example, sometimes labels have a few main ingredients listed first, then have some compound like a powder that will comprise of “less than 1% of: a, b, c, x, y, z” ingredients. I have to ask myself if I think the benefits of the first few ingredients outweigh the potential cons of the many that make up that small portion. Sometimes they do, many times there is a better alternative.
- Added sugar.
I don’t like to always poo poo on foods that have sugar. Foods like honey and fruit have a lot of benefits to their overall nutrient density that make it not worth getting too caught up in their sugar content (to an extent that I will not go into at this time).
Added sugar is a little different though. Unless you’ve been living under a rock and are unaware of sugar and its health effects, I don’t think I need to do a write-up on the harm it can lead to in this post. Instead, I would like to point out the importance of checking that part on the nutrition label since so many foods can be misleading. Dried fruit is a great example of a confusing “healthy” food that is unfortunately often loaded with added sugar. Similarly, yogurts tend to have a lot of added sugar. What is a lot? Well, I don’t advocate for any products with added sugar, as it is usually refined and of poor quality versus the natural sugars one might find in fruit, but if a person must have that blackberry yogurt with real fruit at the bottom, I like to see the number under 9 grams. Definitely under the double digits.
More next week on sweeteners, natural and artificial, so stay tuned!
Oh, fats. I remember looking at the amount of fat in a product when I was younger and attempting to pick out the foods with the LEAST amount of fat. I am talking 1-5grams. If it had any saturated fat I would practically drop It out of my hands on the spot. Things have changed now. Honestly, I get a little excited when I see fat on a label. However, my attention immediately goes to the ingredients where I can see where that fat is coming from. I want whole food sources of fat from animals (high quality of course), coconuts, avocados, olives, nuts, and seeds. If I see any vegetable oils like canola, soybean, safflower, sunflower, and the like, I will
- Be mindful if I have had other products that contain these much in the past few months (store-bought dressing, chips, crackers, condiments), and
- Decide if this product’s pros outweigh the cons in a similar fashion as the ingredient debacle.
I more often than not put the product down if it contains them, but I do have a weakness for Trader Joe’s plantain chips that have “plantains, sunflower oil” as its’ ingredients. For this reason, I make it more of a treat. Trans fats, on the other hand, are a red flag for me. I can’t remember the last time I purchased something with trans fat in it as there is LOTS of research on all ends of the fat fiasco supporting the side that trans fat is unhealthy. First and foremost, though, I believe creating awareness is the first step. Know your food.
- Serving Size
I am a huge supporter of mindful eating and listening to your body to determine your needs from a whole food, nutrient dense diet. I am less of an advocate of calorie and macronutrient counting unless you fall into a situation where your mindfulness and hunger signaling cues are thrown off, or you are optimizing athletic performance and need to be rigid. The former can be due to an unhealthy gut microbiome, stress, sleep, your relationship with food, and many other factors. For many people, we need some help optimizing those cues. For others, we can be good to stick to the healthy diet we know and attempt mindfulness around eating. Both are appropriate avenues. I would like to note that if you have struggled with disordered eating, erring away from calorie counting is advised. If you are one of the others that need some more guidance, checking the serving size and calorie content could be part of your nutrition label routine check. Specific recommendations of the number you are looking for is individually based, so I won’t be throwing anything out now. Recommendations may also be based off the particular product. Sometimes if something has 2-3 servings in it but you are someone that could benefit from 2-3x the nutrients of the single serving, eating/drinking the whole product could be just fine. Other times, if you know you are eating something less nutrient dense, watch the serving size to make sure you do not over-indulge without realizing it.
Given the fact I am a type I diabetic, I mostly like to check out serving size if I am watching total sugars/carbohydrates, so that if I am eating something with 5g/serving, I don’t eat the whole thing only to come to find out there were three servings in it and now I am 15g added sugar deep. Check with a professional to see what you may want to keep an eye on, or just start checking and creating awareness you own self.
- Daily Values
I don’t get too caught up on the percentages of micronutrients at the bottom of the label, but I do think it is good to take a look since it can help you in those “pro/con weighing moments”. Generally speaking, under 5% is low for your daily value, and above 20% is high. Again, I don’t get too caught up in this, but if I see certain vitamins listed in something that helps BOOST its nutrient density (not exclusively provide the nutrients), I will consider eating/drinking more of it. However, synthetic foods and drinks with added nutrients are another ballgame. Often times the whole food source of the nutrient makes it much more bioavailable and worth your money. For example, grass-fed beef and its B-vitamin density vs red bull….
- Protein and Carbohydrates
Rarely do I purchase a packaged product with the intention of getting a lot of protein out of it, because I get the bulk of it from animals, seafood, and plants. I may take a look when purchasing dairy products, or the occasional packaged soup, but overall I understand I need to get my protein elsewhere. A couple exceptions to this are protein bars and protein powder. I try to get bars with double digit amounts of protein with high quality, low number ingredients. Rise bars, chomps, and epic bars are great examples. Protein powder is usually above 20g anyways, but checking out artificial sweeteners and other bulking agents is my main concern with those.
Carbohydrates are something I generally keep low due to the impact they have on my blood sugar. However, I have lived the past 14 years of my life looking at carbohydrates first and foremost on the nutrition label. I have been pretty trained to keep my intake down, but all of my clients have individual needs and goals when it comes to carbs. This macronutrient is a little trickier than others, mostly because the source from which it comes is often unfavorable. In general, I do NOT believe all carbohydrates are to be avoided, though. I just want the best kind and amount for my body, and my client’s bodies.
So now that you are all nutrition label masters, get out there and check out your staple products! See if you find ingredients you hadn’t noticed before, serving sizes you didn’t realize you were eating, or just create more mindfulness by looking at it! Finally, if you don’t believe me or if this sparked some curiosity, get out there and do some research, check with a professional, and use yourself as your own experiment when it comes to figuring out what products work best for you.
Therese Martinez, MS, RD, CPT