How to Read a Food Label
Tips and Tricks to Make Healthier Choices.
The bland black and white chart full of information on the side of your food packages can be overwhelming and tedious to many people. However, there is a lot that a food label can tell you about a product, and it’s super important for you to pay attention to what you’re eating! So what’s the quickest and the easiest way to look at a food label and make a decision?
With this guide Gymaholic breaks down the table and shows you easy ways to make better food choices faster, with just a quick glance.
Be Wary of Health Advertising
As a quick starting tip, some good advice is to not get swept up in package advertising. There are a lot of tricks that food companies use on their packaging to convince you that their food is healthier. Just because it advertises “low in fat”, “no added sugar”, “high in antioxidants” ...None of it really matters. Sure, it can point you in the direction of products that may be healthier than the competition, but they also could have simply added more sugar to make up for the fat they removed, there could be more salt or preservatives, hidden sugars and preservatives in the ingredients…
You can get away with saying a surprising amount of misleading information on food packaging, but the nutrition facts table doesn’t lie. If you pay more attention to it than any of the packages’ flashy advertising you won’t be fooled by faulty ‘healthy’ products.
The Nutrition Facts Table
Everyone knows what the facts table looks like, and many people do look at the table before they buy a product. The problem is that many people don’t have the time or patience to truly read it, so they make decisions based on the amounts of singular nutrients like fat and carbohydrates or total calorie content, instead of the overall nutritional value.
The overall nutritional value of a product is based more on the ratio of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ nutrients in the food. You don’t have to sit there dissecting the facts table to know generally how healthy a food is for you, or find the healthiest choice between two or more products. Before we get into the quick scan method, here is a breakdown of the general things listed on the facts table, and some helpful tips on what to look for and avoid.
Serving Size/ Servings per Container
Serving size is another way companies can trick you into thinking their products are healthier. The nutrition facts listed in the table are always based on the serving size, but there is often more than one serving in the package or container!
Sometimes companies will try to fool you by making the serving size half or a quarter of the package, and if you don’t pay attention you can be consuming double or quadruple the nutrients you thought you were. Always remember to pay attention to the serving size and how many of those servings are in the package so you are aware of how much you’re eating!
Calories are a unit of measurement, not a nutrient itself! A calorie is the amount of heat it takes to raise 1kg of water by 1°C. Fat has 9 Calories/g, and carbohydrates and protein both have 4 Calories/g.
The calories on a label only tell you the combined total number of calories for these 3 macronutrients, not which macros they are coming from! This is why you can never judge a food by it’s calories alone!
Many people give fats a bad name, but not all fats are created equally. It’s important to look at the breakdown of these fats, and not just how much fat is in the product over all.
Saturated and Trans Fats - ‘Bad’ fats. Trans is much worse. Saturated fats are usually okay in moderation, but ideally you want as many ‘good’ fats as possible. Polyunsaturated and Monounsaturated Fats - ‘Good’ fats which can include essential Omega fatty acids!
Your body makes it’s own cholesterol, so dietary cholesterol isn’t really necessary, but low amounts won’t do you any harm. High cholesterol is usually found in products with higher saturated and trans fats, so if you have minimal intake of those ‘bad’ fats, you shouldn’t have to worry too much about your cholesterol intake.
Sodium is essential, but most people get almost double the recommended intake! Having too much can increase the risk of high blood pressure. There can be a lot of added sodium, especially in products where they advertise less fat and sugar content!
Just like fats, carbohydrates get a bad rep, especially because they are made up of chains of glucose (sugar). However, just like fats, not all carbs are created or metabolized equally. Starches found in whole wheat and denser grain products are more slowly digested and won't spike your blood sugar as much as processed and simple sugars, which can cause numerous health problems.
Protein contains several amino acids that are important for the building and repairing of muscles, tissues and perform hundreds of cellular functions in the body. This is a macronutrient like fat and carbohydrates, but has a much more positive reputation.
Quick Trick - 5/15
Knowing about the basic components of most foods is a great step, but even with this information you still need to know how much is too much or too little? Luckily there is an easy method to tell generally whether you’re getting less or more of what you need. Introducing… 5 a Little, 15 a Lot
This easy trick refers to the % Daily Value listed beside most of the nutrients on the facts table. The most important part of this rule is understanding what you need a little of and what you need a lot of.
Little (5% or less) Saturated and trans fat, cholesterol, sodium, sugar Lot (15% or more) Polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fat, fibre
If you simply take these rules into account, you will already be on a fast track to a healthier diet... Yes, it is less important to look at the breakdown of these nutrients and more at the overall macros. If you’re following a diet based solely on macro consumption and not on the nutritional value of the food. If you are not following and ‘If It Fits Your Macros’ (IIFYM) type diet, or even if you are, this rule can be a great tool to quickly and efficiently start making healthier choices!
Just to recap these tips and tricks on reading and understanding the nutrition facts table, here are some quick summary points!
- ‘Healthy’ advertising can be deceiving, but the facts table tells the truth.
- Serving size does not always equal the entire package.
- Don’t judge a food by calories or singular macros.
- 5% a little, 15% a lot is a good way to quickly see the ratio of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ nutrients in a food product.
- You want 5% (Little): Saturated and trans fat, cholesterol, sodium, sugar
- You want 15% (Lot): Polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fat, fibre
Educate yourself and make healthier choices!
Health Canada. “The % Daily Value (Percent daily value)” Food and Nutrition - Health Canada. (2013)
Trichopoulou, Antonia, et al. "Definitions and potential health benefits of the Mediterranean diet: views from experts around the world." BMC medicine12.1 (2014): 1.
US Food and Drug Administration. "How to understand and use the nutrition facts label." (2007).