Food Labels - What you need to know - Part 2
Updated: Mar 31, 2021
In Part 1 of this series, we talked about the list of ingredients as the first and most important source of information on a food label. Today we'll look at the Nutrition Facts label and I'll share what I look for and how I use the information.
We'll use this example from a can of chickpeas for illustration and discussion purposes.
The starting point is the serving size. This is important as the rest of the information on the label is based on the serving size. It's generally listed right at the top. In our example the serving size is 1/2 cup or 125mL. Sometimes it's only listed in grams or mL, which is annoying since who wants to weigh their food? In other cases it may be listed as a number - for example 10 crackers, or 2 cookies. Something to watch out for when looking at smaller snack size packages and beverages especially, is the serving size is not always the entire package even though you are likely to consume it all at once.
Once you know the serving size, you can move on and check out the other relevant information.
First and foremost is sugar. In this case it's 7 g. Now you might be thinking, I didn't know they put sugar in canned chickpeas? And indeed they don’t. Sugar includes both naturally occurring as well as added sugars. This is unfortunate as there is a vast difference between the naturally occurring sugars in foods like fruit, legumes or dairy and refined white sugar or high fructose corn syrup found in soda pop and breakfast cereal. Nevertheless, it is still important to understand the effect the food will have on your blood sugar levels, even for those who are not diabetic.
Next up are calories. A calorie represents the energy value of the food. In truth I generally don't concern myself too much with calories, especially when it comes to whole foods. Nutrient density and food quality is considerably more important than calories. However, when consuming treat foods or highly processed foods, it's a good idea to get a sense of how many calories you may be consuming, especially if they are "empty" calories - as in calories that aren't providing much actual nutrition.
Knowing whether or not a food item is a good source of protein can be helpful, especially if you are looking to increase your protein intake. In our example, the serving size contains 12g of protein, which is pretty decent.
The remaining information on the label may or may not be important to you depending on your health, any diseases or health conditions you may be managing (e.g. diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, etc.) and the type of diet you prefer to eat.
If you have heart disease, high blood pressure or diabetes then it is important to pay attention to your total sodium intake, with the recommended upper limit at 2300 mg per day. Note that similar to sugar, the sodium content listed is the total amount, including any naturally occurring sodium and not simply added sodium.
If you are following a low-carb or ketogenic eating style which involves eating 100 or fewer grams of carbs per day, than you will want to pay attention to the carbohydrates listed on the label. Additionally, there is a correlation between carbohydrates and sugar, since carbohydrates break down into glucose - a form of sugar.
Fats are broken down into 3 numbers - first is the total number, in our example 3.5 g. Then the saturated fat is listed, followed by the trans fats. As of 2018, manufacturers are no longer allowed to add trans fats to processed foods, so this number will almost always be zero. In some cases you may see small amounts of trans fats and these should be from naturally occurring trans fats that come from animal-based foods, such as milk, cheese, beef and lamb, and not something to be concerned about. To be certain, just read the ingredients list, if it contains partially hydrogenated vegetable oils, then these are the bad kind of trans fats and should be avoided.
% Daily Value
This is a calculation of the percentage of the daily value of given nutrient contained in the serving size. The % daily value for vitamins and minerals (e.g. calcium, vitamin C, iron, etc) is based on the RDI or recommended daily intake of that specific vitamin or nutrient. RDI tables are created and published by the government and vary by age and gender. Food labels will use an average age adult as reference. Reference standards, (amount in parenthesis), are used for the following: fat (65g), saturated and trans fats (20g), cholesterol (300mg), sodium (2400mg - which oddly is actually higher than the recommended upper limit 🤔), carbohydrate (300g), and fibre (25g).
Overall, I find the % daily value of little value for a couple different reasons.
First and foremost, we are each individuals with a unique set of genes, health conditions and factors, environmental influences, circumstances, etc., therefore the RDI or reference standard may not be what you truly need.
Second, the RDI tables are based on the minimum amount required to avoid disease or deficiency and not optimal health.
Third, why is there no standard reference value for sugar? The CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) and the WHO (World Health Organization) have both provided guidelines for sugar consumption - why are these not used, especially given the ever increasing rates of pre-diabetes and diabetes? Maybe because a single serving of a can of soda would easily exceed your daily amount? But alas I digress, let's save the sugar conversation for another day…
In summary, for me, the most important part of a food label is the ingredients list - what I really want to know is what's in my food and does it meet my 5 guidelines. The 2 most relevant pieces of information on the Nutrition Facts label are the total grams of sugar and protein. The remaining information may be more or less important to you depending on your health status and individual situation.
What do you look for when you read a nutrition label? What's important to you?