What’s in a Label? What You Need to Know to Make Healthy Food Choices

What’s black, white, and red all over? The nutrition label on a pack of Twizzlers!

Reading a nutrition label is a must-have skill in today’s world of ultra-processed and complex and plentiful additives. If you don’t know what you’re putting in your mouth, how do you manage your health? The label is something we see everyday, but it can be a confusing thing to understand. So in this blog, we’re going to dive into the basics of a nutrition label, and key things to watch out for.

To start, you should know that a nutrition label is based on a 2,000 calorie diet. Depending on your weight, health, age, exercise routine, and more, you may need to eat more or less than 2,000 calories for optimal health. This is a good thing to discuss with your doctor—be sure to give them the specifics of your lifestyle (activity level and exercise are especially important here) when talking about this. Allow me to digress: I personally don’t ‘count’ calories because I realized that I don’t overconsume calories when sticking to a whole foods diet: little/no processed foods and trans fats, some grains, lots of veggies, some fruits, healthy fats and ample protein. It’s hard to overeat broccoli!

As you look at the label, you’ll see different percentages. Based on a 2,000 calorie diet, these are the percentages of your recommended daily fat, cholesterol, sodium, carbs, proteins, and a few vitamins and minerals. Again, however, it’s important to note that this percentage may be slightly more or less based on your necessary intake.

Now, let’s dive into the diagram from the CDC below:

Starting at point 1: the serving size. This outlines how much of the food the nutrition label accounts for. Oftentimes, this is also the “recommended” portion of the food, but we’ll discuss more on why that’s not always the best route.

For example, let’s say this nutrition label is for granola. The serving size is for ⅔ of a cup of granola, which contains 230 calories, 8 grams of fat, etc. per this label.

At point 2, we see the number of servings per container. In this example, there are 8 servings of granola, and each serving is ⅔ of a cup.

It’s helpful to know: 1) how much is in the package, and 2) what it might mean if you eat more than a single serving.

For instance, let’s say you were munching on the granola while watching some Netflix. You realized you’ve eaten half the bag. Since the bag has 8 servings, half of that is 4. To figure out how many calories are in 4 servings (half the bag), you would multiply 230 times 4, to find that you ate 920 calories.

This math can be especially helpful if you find yourself in binge eating habits—even with ‘allegedly’ healthy foods like granola. Most things in very large quantities lose positive health effects, so knowing the serving size can put that in perspective.

Next, we have point 3: this is about the total carbohydrates in a single serving of the food. It breaks this down further into the amount of fiber, sugar, and added sugars.

First: fiber. A high-fiber content in a food is a good thing. Getting ample fiber in your diet is one of the best things you can do for your health! Here we see that the granola has 4 grams of fiber, which is not too bad. However, we also see that there’s a good chunk of sugar in the granola, too. Let’s break this down.

Total sugar is, understandably, the total amount of sugar in the food. Interestingly, the CDC has not made any official recommendation for the amount of sugar to have each day. Generally, it is good to keep your sugar consumption low, especially if you struggle with diabetes or are pre-diabetic.

However, recently the CDC added a new line to the nutrition label: added sugar. This refers to sugars which have been added through processing, sweeteners, syrups, or juice concentrates. They are not naturally-occurring sugars that might be found in fruits and other whole foods.

For diabetes prevention, you want to keep your consumption of added sugars low. If you see a high amount of added sugar (more than 5-8 grams), that is a good food to avoid or limit your consumption! 

Now, let’s go back to our granola label. We see that there are 12 grams of sugar, in total; however, 10 grams of that are added sugars. For granola—a food we often think of as healthy—that’s actually a lot of sugar in just one serving. The general guidelines for ADDED sugars is a maximum of 50 grams a day—which is still 12 teaspoons of sugar! Digress #2: If you are a non-diabetic, very active and otherwise healthy, that may work but I would opt for much less added sugar. As a pre-diabetic, my goal for added sugar is ZERO, because any time I have a meal out, I know that I’ll have more than enough added sugar. So, when cooking at home, I stay away from any added sugar and use monk fruit, allulose or stevia instead. One serving of granola takes you to the maximum allotment—and that’s for only 2/3 of a cup! You can consider eating less than the recommended amount—potentially only ⅓ of a cup of granola—OR skip the granola altogether and grab some nuts and fresh fruit instead. 

If you struggle with blood sugar levels, understanding the amount of ADDED sugars is a must in determining whether you should eat it or put it back!

Point 4 of the label—look for the fiber and vitamin/minerals breakdown as that indicates the nutritious components of the food. The level of protein is also important—if you are an active person, you should aim for at least 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight.  That means that a 165 pound adult should consume at least 60 grams of protein daily. But, if you’re active, you will need more. I started lifting weights three times a week so I upped my protein to about 1 gram/kilogram to build muscle.

Back to the granola example, we see that the granola has a decent amount of iron and fiber – which is good. BUT, it is high in sugar. Digress #3: I personally haven’t found ANY granola that will not make my blood sugar skyrocket so I generally avoid it.

Finally, point 5: the areas you generally want to look out for and avoid in high quantities.

Right below the calories, we see the total fat. First reminder: fat is not bad! For more information on the types of fats that are healthy and those you want to limit, click here for one of our recent blog posts on fats.

In particular, you’ll see that point 5 touches on the amount of saturated fats, which are a type of fat you want to limit. They aren’t inherently bad, but the research on saturated fat’s effects on health are mixed, especially when combined with carbs and sugars.  

Additionally, point 5 touches on added sugars, as well as the number of calories. A high-calorie food isn’t inherently bad; however, if a food is high in calories, high in saturated and trans fats, and has a number of added sugars, that’s a clear sign that you should avoid it!

Next time you head to the grocery store, check out the nutrition label on your foods. It can be shocking the amount of sugar in some foods you thought were “healthy.” Equipping yourself with nutrition label know-how is one of the first steps to managing your blood sugar and chronic disease, as well as improving your overall health and energy through diet!

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