How to Read Nutrition Labels

I have been looking at a lot of nutrition labels lately and they sure are confusing. It seems like they give very little useful information and seem so disorganized. I am sure there is a better way but we are stuck with what we have. In any case, let’s start out at the beginning and see if we can sort a few things out.

The very first thing you see might be the most confusing. That is the serving size. There are no set rules to serving size and companies often list simply ridiculous serving sizes to distort the truth about their product.

I have seen serving sizes in ounces, fluid ounces, cups and fractions of cups, grams, and all kinds of other units of measure. Even if you know exactly what all these units of measure are, they still don’t give you a good idea of what a serving size looks like.

For instance, something dry and light can have a lot of calories per ounce and seem like a very small amount, while something that is water laden and heavy can have few calories and seem really big for the suggested servings. A tomato is very heavy and has few calories per ounce, but sun dried tomatoes are very light and have a lot of calories per ounce.

Luckily food manufacturers have to list the servings per container. By doing a little math you can figure out the total amount of calories, macronutrients, micronutrients, etc. per container than figure out your own serving size. Of course, this is more math than most people like to do.

It is very interesting to note that nutrition labels list calories then calories from fat. Some fat is good and some fat is bad. My opinion is that this is a holdover from an old idea that all fat, or too much fat is bad for you. Too much good fat is good for you, too much bad fat is bad for you is another way of saying something closer to the truth.

Next up Daily Value is listed. Daily Value is of almost no use to us because it varies depending on our calorie needs among other things. Various types of activity place a higher or lower demand on your daily needs as well. It can act like a somewhat good reference point though.

Most labels today list Total Fat and then list the various types of fat underneath it. Trans Fats are the worst and I would say you should have 0% of them in your diet. You can’t go wrong by avoiding trans fats if any is listed on the label. Mono-unsaturated fats (those found in high amounts in olive oil) are some of the best fats out there. Eat plenty of those. All other fats fall on a spectrum between those two from bad to good.

Cholesterol is next up. My opinion is that cholesterol is good for you. And recent research has shown that dietary cholesterol has little to no effect on blood serum cholesterol.

Sodium and Potassium are next up on the list. These are micronutrients that are essential for the proper functioning of ion transport. This basically means that sodium and potassium are essential for getting all nutrients back and forth across the cell membrane. Without them cells start dying off.

Although imbalances are rare, people tend to get more sodium than they need and not enough potassium. These should be roughly equal when added up in all the foods you eat over the course of a day. Sweat producing exercise/work causes people to lose a lot of sodium through sweat so those people may need to worry about their sodium needs more than sedentary people. Likewise, sedentary people should really focus on having a low sodium diet.

Total Carbohydrate is next up. Again, this is broken down into dietary fiber (good for you) and sugars (bad for you in excess). This is another place things get confusing. The “health” community keeps saying that complex carbohydrates are good for you, but that too much sugar is bad for you. Well complex carbohydrates are still made of sugars, no matter how much fiber they have. Yes, your whole grain cereal has a ton of sugar in it. I’m sorry. But it is ok. Your body will do just fine with some sugar. Just don’t overdo it.

And protein is last. Protein is made up of different amino acids. Some better than others, but it isn’t necessary to talk or worry about every single one. The average person should aim for half their body weight in grams of protein a day. If you work out a lot than you should probably up your protein requirement. Just remember to drink a lot of water with your protein. Your kidneys will thank you.

Next up we have the daily values for a few micronutrients represented in the food product. As I mentioned before the daily values are almost useless if you don’t have a good handle on the actual amount you are eating. Eating a large variety of nutritious foods will help you ignore this section entirely.

Last but not least we have the ingredient list. The ingredients are listed in the order of their amounts. This means that the #1 ingredient is the main ingredient in the food. The last ingredient usually represents less than 2% of the actual final product. Things to look out for are foods that you are allergic too, and any nasty ingredients such as MSG (monosodium glutamate). yum!

That about does it for this article. Hope this helps in your future nutrition facts label reading odysseys. 🙂

This is our 28th challenge in The Personal Health Challenge Series…