When you’re at the grocery store deciding between which products to buy, how often do you base your decision on the nutrition label?
Maybe you’re mostly label savvy but still have some questions, or maybe the label still looks like gibberish to you. So how do we know if a product is “good” or “bad” for us? We use these terms loosely, because there really are no good or bad foods. There are more nutritious, and less nutritious ones, and there is a time for each in a healthy diet. The goal is that 80-90% of the diet come from nutritious foods that fuel your body, and 10-20% can be room for eating for other reasons – enjoyment, convenience, etc.
Here is a quick guide to reading a nutrition label to help aid in your decision-making process in the grocery store, to help you get to that 80% goal.
Start at the top...
1. Serving size
Look at the serving size and compare the serving size to that of what you would normally eat. The serving size may be smaller or larger to what you would consider one serving would be. Make sure you consider what portion you would normally eat! For example, if the serving size is one cup, but you normally eat two cups, double the values on the rest of the table. Or maybe the serving size can tell you that your usual portion may be a little large.
This is how much energy is contained in one serving of this product (our bodies convert calories to energy). This amount will vary depending on the type of macronutrients (carbohydrate, fat and protein) in the product. Do not get too caught up in the calories, as we haven’t read enough of the label at this point to make our decision. It is your overall calorie intake that matters as well.
In this section is where we first see percent values (%). These percents are directly linked to daily values. Daily values are a based on a 2000 calorie per day diet. It is important to know that the daily calories that you need is most likely not exactly 2000 calories. Companies use this as a rule of thumb to generalize food labels. The amount of calories a person needs is based on their age, weight, height, gender, activity levels, hormones, etc. Women need about 1500-2200 calories per day (depending on how active and their goals), and men need anywhere from 1800-3000+ (again depending on height, activity, goals, etc.
The nutrient section is broken up into categories of total fat, cholesterol, sodium, total carbohydrate, protein and various micronutrients (for example vitamin A, C, calcium and iron) which we will build on further.
Let’s start with the total fat section. This is how much trans, saturated and unsaturated fats are within one serving. Generally, you want to aim for foods that are lower in numbers of trans and saturated fats. Unsaturated fats are healthy fats and should make up the majority of your daily fat intake. Unsaturated fats can help reduce the risk of heart disease and have many other benefits when replacing trans and saturated fats in the diet.
Dietary cholesterol — found in meat, poultry, eggs and regular dairy products — has less impact on blood cholesterol than foods with saturated and trans fat, so those should be the main focus. If you have high cholesterol, you would want to aim for lower cholesterol in the diet.
Sodium is another word for salt. We typically do not want large amounts of sodium in our food products as the majority of us should not consume more than 2300 mg of sodium per day (which is as much as a teaspoon of salt!), once you start looking at labels, you’ll realize that sodium is in A LOT of foods, so try to limit when you can.
Total carbohydrates are how much sugar and fibre are found in one serving. Don’t be afraid of this section. It is a flat-out myth that we need to eat foods lower in carbohydrates. Your body LOVES to use carbohydrates as an energy source. In fact, your metabolism wouldn’t function properly without carbohydrates being present in your diet. Carbs get a bad reputation because they are in a lot of foods, and they are in a lot of foods we tend to overeat/eat large portions of – bread, rice, pasta, potatoes, etc. (and some of these foods we tend to add other high calorie foods on top of, e.g. butter). Carbs are also in a lot of indulgent foods that have basically been engineered to taste like crack – candy, chips, chocolate, ice cream, etc. So again, we tend to overeat them. Doesn’t mean they’re evil/cause weight gain in and of themselves.
Don't forget - fibre is a GOOD thing. Many people do not get enough. Fibre helps keep you full for longer, helps keep you regular, helps keep your gut healthy, and helps with chronic disease prevention. Also, our body does not absorb fibre. So minus fibre from the total carbs - this will give you the net carbs of what is in the product.
What is most important when it comes to carbohydrate intake is to refer to the ingredients section. If the ingredients list includes the word sugar, or other names for sugar such as sucrose, corn syrup, fructose, or any other word ending in -ose, chances are it is an added sugar. Although, added sugar is found in many products available to us in the grocery store, it can be difficult to completely avoid them. The majority of the time, products with naturally occurring sugars won’t include sugar in the ingredients list, for example, if you look at the ingredients list of frozen blueberries, the only ingredient listed will be “blueberries”. The products may also include the phrases “no added sugar”, or “natural sugar”. Overall, products with natural sugars are best. However, added sugars are not the enemy, just eat them in lower amounts!
Finally, the micronutrients section includes vitamins and minerals. The content of this section can vary depending on the product. Although, most products list the vitamin A, vitamin C, iron and calcium levels. These nutrients do not contribute to calories. Each micronutrient has an individual role in our bodily functions. It is hard to consume too much of these nutrients (but still possible if you use supplements plus eat foods high in them), so any micronutrients in the product is usually a bonus (but be careful if you are also taking a supplement).
Look at the serving size and compare it to your intake
Look at the calories – where are they coming from? Fat, protein and/or carbohydrate?
Remember that the % values are based on a 2000 calorie per day diet
Eat more products with unsaturated fats, and less with trans and saturated fats
Consume cholesterol and sodium in smaller amounts
Try to eat products with less added sugar (look at the ingredient list)
Get your micros in! (vitamin A, vitamin C, iron and calcium)
Remember to look at the bigger picture – it is your OVERALL diet that counts
For more information, check out this source on decoding the food label and understanding nutrition claims: https://www.unlockfood.ca/en/Articles/Nutrition-Labelling/Decoding-the-Nutrition-Label.aspx
Felicia Newell is a Registered Dietitian, Sport Nutritionist, Personal Trainer, and a mom of 4 boys under 8! She is also the owner of Sustain Nutrition and is partnered with The Energy Company. Felicia wears many hats, and knows what it is like to try and live healthy in a busy world, where our environments aren't always supportive of making healthy choices.
Life is busy, confusing at times, and full of contradictions, especially in the world of health and wellness. Felicia is passionate in helping others fight through the misinformation out there, and to navigate life and health, but most importantly, to enjoy it while doing it.
She has over 11 years of education and experience in Nutritional Sciences. Between completing her Bachelor and Masters in Nutritional Sciences, personal training certification, teaching university courses, years of nutrition counselling helping people crush their goals, and being a busy mom of 4 young boys, she has the passion, skills, education, and experience to help you reach your health and wellness in a way that works for YOU.