How To: Reading Product Labels

Product labels can be very confusing.  Even if you are an expert in nutrition and know exactly what to look for, you often need a magnifying glass and this month’s USDA handbook to read the fine print and understand the percentages and serving sizes.  Without that expert knowledge, you’re almost definitely making mistakes and are being misled despite the best of intentions as a smart shopper.

Beware of labels with claims.  Fat Free, Low Fat, Low Sodium, Low Cholesterol, Natural, Organic, etc.  These claims are all intended to grab your attention.  Some of these claims are regulated, some are not.  Even those that are regulated can be (intentionally) very deceiving.  Lowered fat claims are perhaps the biggest culprit…

To be considered “fat free”, a product simply has to have no more than 1/2 gram of fat per serving.  PER SERVING.  So, if you’re a food manufacturer and you want to call it fat free, you know exactly what to do – shrink the serving size.  Non-stick cooking spray is often labeled fat free.  It’s oil, and 100% fat, yet it lists fat content as zero.  How?  The serving size is 1/4 second spray.  So, there could be up to 1/2 gram of fat per serving and it can still say “Fat: Og.”  But how much do we really use?  Well, if we’re spraying a pan for pancakes, it might take 3-4 seconds to spray it.  That’s 16 servings.  That’s up to 8g of fat, or 72 calories from fat.  Even when the label says zero.

Let’s look at milk real quick because the labeling is even more confusing.  1% milk has 2.6 g per serving.  In 8 fl oz of cow’s milk there are 99 calories, and with 9 calories in every gram of fat, that makes 23 of the calories from fat.  That means 21% of your calories are coming from fat.  And it’s perfectly legally labeled “Low Fat 1% milk.”

So what do we do about it?  

The answer is actually simpler than you’re thinking.  Learning this completely changed the way that I shop!  Forget about the Nutrition Facts part of the label.  Quit trying to figure out whether 16% of your daily allowance of sugar is good or if 15% of fat is bad.  Quit worrying about how many serving sizes you really eat.  Forget about the Nutrition Facts part of the label.  Completely.

Everything that comes in a package also as another piece of VERY important information on it.  Information that can (hardly) be tampered with.  The Ingredient List.  Skip right to reading this and you’ll learn what’s really in the package.  Here are a few tips for what to do with that information:

1) Look for real food items – tomatoes, peppers, olives, beans, spices.  These are good to see!
2) Look for chemicals and compounds you can’t pronounce and avoid whenever possible.
3) Be on alert for oil – if it says oil in the ingredient list, there’s fat in there regardless of what the claims say.
4) Look for whole grains in breads and pastas.  Whole wheat flour is different from whole wheat.  The product is not a whole grain if it’s flour.  Flours are just a step away from sugars in that they get processed into glucose very quickly and stored as fat if not readily needed.
5) Be aware of the many names of sugars – ‘syrup’, ‘sweetener’, or anything that ends with ‘ose’ can probably be assumed to be sugar.

To make it even easier….

In an ideal world, most of your food will not come with a label.  Say what?   Real food does not come with a label!  In the grocery store, shop primarily in the fresh produce section, breeze through to the beans and whole grains (usually in the pasta aisle), and then grab some of your favorite plant milks, and you’re good to go.  Avoid as much as you can the center aisles of the grocery store where all the items come in boxes, bags and cans.  With the exception of whole grains and beans, the rest are rarely whole foods.

Happy Shopping!


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