“Read the labels, read the ingredients, look for this, look for that!” Sound like any of the food police you know? Well, believe it or not they do have your best interests in mind. Anyone who knows anything about nutrition knows that labels are our friends and our guide for understanding what is in the products we put in our bodies. Many of us still don’t even know where to start with nutritional labels, often listed as Nutrition Facts. With it being National Nutrition Month, Let’s celebrate by learning the facts on well…the facts.
What are “nutrition facts?” Nutrition facts are what we call the little chart you find on most food packages and now even on some menus. In 2014, then Gov. Peter Shumlin, signed a bill that would make Vermont the first state to require the labeling of genetically modified organisms or GMOs. Shumlin was quoted saying, “Vermonters take our food and how it is produced seriously, and we believe we have a right to know what’s in the food we buy. I am proud that we’re leading the way in the United States to require labeling of genetically engineered food.” Then in 2018 came a ruling that menus should allow consumers access to their nutrition information, including some chain restaurants. This has been a huge help, so that we can all better understand what we are ordering, and perhaps even use that information to order foods that better fit the lifestyle we are trying to achieve or maintain.
Now that we know how important these facts and information are, especially to Vermonters…how do we read them? First and foremost – start at the top. First what you see is serving size and the servings per container. Unless otherwise noted, the facts below are based on one serving per container. Serving sizes may be tricky. When in doubt if it says a cup, grab a measuring cup and measure out that portion until you are able to eyeball a one-cup serving well. If the servings per container say one, then you know the label is based on if you eat the whole item.
Calories come next. Calories are a measure of how much energy you get from one serving of food. Most people consume more calories than they need without meeting recommended intake for a variety of nutrients. The calorie section of the label can help you manage your weight if you know how many calories your body needs per day. See how many calories are in the food or drink and then make sure to check again. Is this for the whole product or certain serving size? For example, a bottle of soda might say 100 calories a serving, but if the bottle is 2.5 servings, it’s really 250 if you consume the whole bottle. Or say frozen pizza, most frozen pizzas serve 6-8 people. If you are splitting that with a friend, you want to take the calories per serving and multiply by how many servings you eat.
Down the list you will see Total Fat, Cholesterol, and Sodium. These are areas you want to limit. Eating too much fat, saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol, or sodium may increase your risk of certain chronic diseases. A great rule of thumb is that you want to look for less than 20% of these per serving. If they are over that, look for other options or eat a smaller portion. In fact, your doctor may even recommend you eat foods under 10%, so make sure to check out these areas on the label. Less is more in this area. Many of us eat way more salt and fat than we realize. Read the facts to make the best choices.
Then the carbohydrates portion, which can be tricky. The carbohydrates on the food label are broken down into Dietary Fiber and Sugars. Dietary Fiber is the indigestible part of plant foods found in foods like veggies, fruits and whole grains. The higher the fiber content, the more filling the food and the better for your digestion. (Fiber is good! Look for 20% or higher and you know this is a heart-healthy food). Sugars can come from both natural (e.g. fruit and milk sugar) and artificial sources (e.g. high fructose corn syrup). Neither sugar is “good for you,” but both are made of simple carbohydrates and contain no fiber. Too much sugar can really take a toll on your health and your waistline. Most people need 300 grams of carbohydrates or less a day.
Next is protein. Many Americans are now focused on high protein diets. Word to the wise, too much of ANYTHING is stored as fat. The DRI (Dietary Reference Intake) is about 0.36 grams per pound. This amounts to about 56 grams per day for the average sedentary man and 46 grams per day for the average sedentary woman. If you participate in a fitness regime where you are breaking down protein (aka muscle) you may require more. Otherwise, packing in the protein may be packing on the pounds. Read the facts.
Next is the good stuff! Vitamins and minerals. This is where you get the real nutrients your body craves to keep you healthy. When looking in this area you again look for 20% and up, the higher the better really. These are considered ‘micronutrients’ and are always listed as percentages of the daily recommended allowance (RDA). The idea is to get 100 percent of each nutrient daily to prevent deficiencies. Many nutrients are water-soluble and, if you have too much, will not be cause for concern. So, if you see great whole grain bread with high fiber, protein and lots of vitamins B, this bread is for you. If you see a loaf of white bread, high in carbohydrates, sugar, low fiber and no nutrients, skip it.
Lastly, the most important list on the label is the ingredients. This is a list of everything that is inside what you are thinking of putting in your body. The ingredients on a label are listed from the largest amount of volume used to the smallest. If your label looks more like a list for a science experiment, just remember, you are thinking of putting that in your body! This is also where you can find a lot of hidden ingredients. Have you ever looked at the label for canned corn? Many list corn, salt and high fructose corn syrup or sugar. Yes, your canned corn you thought was a vegetable has been marinating in sugar water!
Reading each label may seem like a tedious task but you may also be shocked at all the “healthy” choices you were making and find that the claim on the front of the box doesn’t hold up to what the nutrition facts are saying. And some you will learn fast and then know which products are for you and which ones aren’t. Food marketing companies do their best to sway you by the front of the box. It is your job to read what is actually inside it. When it comes to food, it fuels the most important people we know, not just us but our kids, friends and families. Read up on what you are putting in. Get to know the facts! Make healthy choices, swap in foods that make you feel great and energized. When you aren’t sure, check the label and if it meets your needs it’s a go! Get excited about learning more about nutrition. It’s such an important need, skill, and tool! Learn and celebrate the facts!
Director of The Wellness Center