Last time when I wrote about the difference between serving sizes and portion sizes here, I had a few people ask me about other things they should be aware about when reading nutrition labels so I thought I’d share some of the tricky things you should be aware about when reading nutrition labels so you’re best informed about what you’re buying and eating next time you’re at the grocery store.
Top 3 Tricks to Watch Out for When Reading Nutrition Labels:
- Serving size deception. As I mentioned on my last blog post, often times food companies use a serving size that is often much less than the portion you may actually eat so while it looks like the calories and fat are fairly low, it reflects just a small serving. For example, a serving of tortilla chips is only about 12 chips. However, when you’re eating out of a big bag, you may easily eat twice that or more and thus end up with double the calories and fat. Some labels are much more deceiving than others when it comes to the serving size they use. But either way it’s a good idea to first glance at the serving size so you know what amount all of the information reflects and to make more accurate calculations according to your typical portion size. In addition, it’s also important to know that the USDA allows food companies to use a reasonable estimate for calorie and nutrition info with an allowable margin of error of 20%! So you could potentially be eating as much as 20% more calories, fat, etc. than the listed amount per serving as well.
- The ingredient list. I think reading the ingredients is one of the most informative parts about a nutrition label, but unfortunately most people often don’t take the time to read this part because they don’t know what to look for. The three main things to keep in mind when reading ingredients are:
- The ingredients are generally listed in order of highest to lowest amount used. For example, if the first ingredient is “Enriched Whole Wheat” and the second ingredient is “Whole Wheat” this is actually not a 100% whole wheat bread. Unfortunately, because it does contains some whole grains, they are allowed to put the health claim “Whole wheat” or “made from Whole Grains” on it so many people may think they’re getting a really healthy whole grain bread, when they’re getting one that is more portion refined flour than whole wheat flour. I recently saw a misleading packaging for baby food where the cover and the photo makes the food seem more like it’s a serving of vegetables like peas, when in reality the first ingredient listed was apple puree. This is why it’s important to read the ingredient list and know that the first ingredient is the one in highest concentration.
- Sometimes certain ingredients are disguised in the lis so it’s important to know what certain ingredients mean. For example, any ingredient that contains the word “partially hydrogenated” actually means it’s a trans fat, even if the label doesn’t list any trans fat. Also, the term “yeast extract” is sometimes a substitute for the additive MSG. There’s also several other scientific chemicals used in processed foods that may not sound that bad but are linked to negative health effects when consumed in large amounts like sodium nitrate, BHA, BHT, benzoates, sulfates, and sorbates that you should try to avoid if you see them in the ingredient list.
- Again, health claims on a product don’t always properly reflect what’s actually in the food so the only way to truly know is to read the ingredients. For example, “organic” or “natural” doesn’t mean a food is healthy. It can still be high in sugar, fat and other ingredients. Just remember that if you can’t pronounce half the ingredients or have never heard of them think about whether or not you want to buy those kinds of foods.
- Misunderstanding labels like zero and free. Generally when a food says sugar free, it doesn’t mean it’s calorie or fat free. In fact, to compensate for not using sugar, the food companies sometimes use more of other ingredients like carbohydrates or fat or sugar substitutes so sugar free doesn’t always mean healthier. Same goes for fat free and even reduced fat. “Reduced” just means it has 25% less fat then the regular version but if the regular version is very high in fat, the reduced fat while a better choice, can still be high in fat. Similarly, labeling laws let food companies claim “zero” of a nutrient if it has less than 0.5 g per serving. For example, a food can say zero trans fat but still contain 0.4 g of trans fat per serving. While that is a small amount that you could argue is almost zero, as we talked about before, you may easily eat more than 1 serving at a time, and over a week for example you could eat much more which can actually add up to a significant amount of trans fats that you didn’t even know you were eating. The only way to truly know if a food is trans fat free is to read the ingredients and avoid items that have anything hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated. Here’s a handy list from the American Heart Association of what certain labels actually mean:
Next time you’re grocery shopping, make sure to examine the labels before adding foods to your cart and remember these tips to help make the healthiest choices.
- Always pay attention to the serving size so you have a true understanding of how many calories, fat, sugar you’re actually consuming.
- Read the ingredients and don’t get caught up on the health claims like “fat free”, “reduced fat or sodium”, “zero trans fat”, “lowers cholesterol”, “whole grains” etc.
- Know which ingredients you should try to avoid in foods but overall just know that the more ingredients a product has, the more processed it is so if you can’t pronounce half the ingredients or have never heard of them before, think twice before buying it since it’s probably not that healthy.