As a dietitian, it is very obvious that we are all very confused by the nutrition label. “How many calories should the product have?” “How many grams of fat?” “What is trans fat?”These are all questions that I get on a weekly basis.
While the nutrition label was introduced many years ago as a way for us to better understand the foods that we are eating, it has actually done the exact opposite. With confusing words, random numbers, jumbled percentages and ideal percentage lists, the food label is a headache in itself.
Today, however, I am here to make it MUCH more simple than that. When it comes to the nutrition label, I recommend that you look at one thing and one thing only: the ingredient list.
Yes, I am giving you permission to ignore almost every other word and number listed, except for a few, which I will discuss below.
So why is the ingredient list so important?
When it comes to our food, we want to chose products that are in their whole form as much as possible; and when we are eating foods with a label, the least processed the better.
When selecting a product, choose one with no more than 4-6 (ish) ingredients and make sure that you can pronounce each of those ingredients. I like to tell my clients this: “If you wouldn’t or couldn’t keep the particular ingredient on hand in your kitchen, don’t eat it?” I don’t know about you, but I certainly don’t keep “hydrogenated soybean oil” in my pantry! By choosing products this way, you will keep harmful chemicals out of your food and thus out of your body. Keep in mind that the higher up on the ingredient list the greater amount of that particular ingredient is in that product (by weight); for example, if sugar is the first thing on the ingredient list, realize that the product is majority sugar, and therefore, probably not a healthy product. If sugar were one of the last few ingredients on the list, that would mean that there is much less sugar (by weight) than any of the other ingredients.
As I mentioned above, when it comes to the numbers, there are only a few that are important to me:
- Trans fat: make sure that it is 0
- Sodium: the lower the better
- Fiber: the more the better
So why am I ignoring all of the rest?
When it comes to calories, the more real food that you eat (not chemicals), the more your body and hunger will begin to balance out; this allows you to listen to your own hunger cues, rather than feeling constantly hungry because your are never giving your body the nutrition that it needs. It becomes far less about the calories when you are eating real food.
When it comes to the fat grams, as long as there is no trans fat in the product and the saturated fat is low, the rest is healthy fat that should be included in a healthy diet. Remember what I told you a last week about about fat not being the enemy?
When it comes to carbohydrates, as long as there is at least 3-5 grams of fiber (preferably more!) in the product, than the carbohydrate number isn’t the one to focus on. Since sugar is a carbhoydrate, as long as sugar (or any form of) isn’t high up on the ingredient list, this is not a number that I worry about either. Select whole grains (brown rice, whole grain pasta, quinoa, oats, etc.) and the carb number listed becomes less important.
But what about protein? Again, if you are choosing real food, getting adequate protein shouldn’t be a problem. If you are reaching for packaged food for protein purposes, then obviously the more the better; however, you can usually combine a healthier protein choice (like a Greek yogurt, high quality cheese, roasted garbanzo beans, nuts, etc.) with whatever packaged food your are selecting (granola bar, dried fruit, etc.) rather than depending on processed foods to provide your body protein. Make sense?
Ignore the percentages and choose a product with real food listed on the ingredient list and you will be off to a good start! Easy enough right?
Does the thought of trying to read a food label confuse you too? If so, send me your questions!
Have a great day friends!