At this point, if you read my blogs, you know that I try very hard to take my health seriously and that it is seriously hard when it comes to some aspects of American life. Specifically, it is hard to put good food in your body when you do not even know where to start!
The reason it can be seriously hard is because there is a lot of conflicting shit out there, and we have to do our best to educate ourselves to avoid falling into traps. One of the biggest pitfalls in the quest to health is the dreaded nutrition label and ingredient list. One of my followers on this blog actually recommended I write on this topic because it can be so damn confusing. I could not agree more that this is an important topic, and one that people who did not have to do a fitness competition or work with a nutrition coach probably do not know a lot about.
I mean seriously: WHAT THE HELL DOES IT EVEN SAY AND HOW DOES THAT APPLY TO ME?!
The nutrition label portion of any food item contains a lot words that can seem daunting, and most people just focus on the calories at the top. Even then, people read the calories at the top wrong (for example: 150 calories per serving with 72 servings means that the bag of trail mix you thought was a measly 150 calories is actually horrendously caloric and WTF to the fact that I eat the whole bag usually). Seriously though, the Fruit n’ Nut Medley from Costco used to be my jam. What if I told you that the calorie count might be the least of your concerns on that label; yet, it is the biggest item on the label?
My goal here is to walk through some basics of the nutrition label and ingredient list in order to prepare you better from getting stressed out when you try to be healthier.
Nutrition Labels 101
Did you know that food companies did not have to include a food label until 1990? Yes. 1990 is when these became MANDATORY due to the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act (NLEA) (FDA,2020). So, food labels have only been around for 30 years in the grand scheme of things. Also, updates really did not occur to them until 2016 when FDA stated it would “update them based on new evidence in diet research” (FDA, 2020). 2020 was the year most nutrition labels would be moved over to the new format. How fun is that?
The revised nutrition label: (1) the calorie information in a larger, bolder font, (2) calories from fat are removed, (3) total sugars and added sugars are included, (4) vitamins A and C are not longer required and (5) vitamin D and potassium have been added (FDA, 2020; NASM, 2021). The reason for these additions were to help consumers make more informed choices AND reflect new scientific data that supports what is necessary and not for the consumer (FDA, 2020).
This is what you will see on a nutrition label (taken from the NASM CNC Course):
- The number of servings per container
- Serving size
- Total calories per serving
- Total fat per serving (in grams), saturated fat (in grams), and trans fat (in grams)
- Cholesterol (in milligrams)
- Sodium (in milligrams)
- Total carbohydrates per serving (in grams)
- Dietary fiber (in grams)
- Total sugars and added sugars (in grams)
- Protein per serving (in grams)
- Amounts and the Percent Daily Value for the following vitamins and minerals: vitamin D (in micrograms), calcium (in milligrams), iron (in milligrams), and potassium (in milligrams)
Kat I Am Confused Already
Let’s break each one down. Also, before I dive in, when I make a broad statement about how many grams of something you should have per day, this is based on the FDA website for Daily Value, which is an estimate of a 2,000 calorie diet (which does not fit EVERYONE). This is listed on the bottom of the nutrition label – see above – it is all the way on the bottom!
THE BIG THREE
- The serving size: This is a reflection of how much people typically eat of a food, not how much you SHOULD eat (FDA, 2020). This is a change from the past, and it is in the hopes to make people more autonomous in their choices. The serving size is shown as a common household measure that is appropriate to the food (such as cup, tablespoon, piece, slice, or jar), followed by the metric amount in grams (g) (FDA, 2020). For example, based on the review of relevant information such as nationwide surveys of the amounts of foods Americans eat, the serving size for soda has changed from 8 ounces to 12 ounces (FDA, 2020).
- The number of servings per container: Simply put, this is how many of the serving size are in the container; think about it this way – if it says 3 servings per container, then you multiply the calories per serving by 3 to get the total amount of calories in the whole container.
- Total calories per serving: Again, the FDA states that the calories per serving is how many calories are in the typical amount eaten by average consumers NOT a recommendation on how much you should eat (FDA, 2020). The calories per serving is simply the amount of calories in the average consumer’s portion of that food.
**If a container has one to three servings, it is required to show you the calories per serving and the calories per container side by side in a dual column label format (displayed in the photo above). The reason for this is to promote that it is OKAY to consume the whole container, and it is supposed to help people make wiser choices with food. This is why at Trader Joe’s you often see that side by side jazz. If a label does not have a side-by-side, it does not mean it is WRONG, it just means that it has more than 3 servings (FDA, 2020).
OTHER THINGS ON THE LABEL
*You will only need to check these three out if you are counting macros. In reality, you should just pay attention to the quality of your food (ingredients) and if it is well-balanced rather than get to caught up in macros. For example, we generally should only consume roughly 45-80g of fat in a day. If one food item has 25g of fat, that is something to consider. This is the same with protein; if a 135 pound female is supposed to eat 135g of protein a day, then a food with only 2g of protein would not add a lot to your goals.
- Total Fat in grams: How much fat per gram is in the serving size, broken down into Saturated and Trans fat because these purportedly have the most deleterious effects for our health (FDA, 2020). More on that…
- Saturated Fat in grams: This portion used to get a bad rep for being the bane of all evil. However, recent research has shown that saturated fat may not be as bad as we had thought but the jury is still out on heart disease risk (NASM, 2021; Healthline, 2017). It is essentially fats that are solid at room temperature. A good rule of thumb for this is that if a food is high in cholesterol it is probably high in saturated fat, and that means you are consuming more cholesterol when you consume saturated fat. Just know that fat in general should be limited more than the other macronutrients; thus, saturated fat should be on the lower end for general health.
- Trans Fat in grams: Unlike saturated fat, trans fat is much more definitively bad for you than saturated fat and should be avoided if artificial versus natural in food (Healthline, 2017). Meats may have natural trans fat; meanwhile, foods baked or made with shortening can have it too but it would be artificial.
- Total Carbs in grams: How many carbs per grams is in the serving size.
- Total Protein in grams: How many protein per grams is in the serving size.
Additional Information and Micronutrients
Dietary Fiber in grams: Fiber is part of the carbohydrate total as fibers are in the form of carbs. Soluble fiber dissolves in water and can help lower cholesterol (LabelCalc, 2019). Insoluble fiber does not dissolve in water and remains in tact in your intestinal tract (LabelCalc, 2019). Fiber is purportedly good for gut health, and FDA recommends we get about 28g per day (FDA, 2021).
Total Sugars in grams and Added Sugars: This is underneath carbs because well, carbs include sugar (simply put). This number is simply the amount of sugar in the food. The sugar can be that which naturally occurs in the food (think of fruit) and added sugar would be the additional sweetener put in (think sucrose for processing). If something contains 25g of sugar but has 23 added sugars, that might not be so good! You should really only have 50g per day (FDA, 2021).
Sodium in mg: This is the salt in your food! Simple as that. The confusing part is really how much mg is really too much sodium (at least I think that is your question on this one). A “good” intake of sodium is less than 2400 mg of sodium; however, this is quite low! On average, Americans eat 3400 mg of sodium per day (FDA, 2020). I do not stress too much about sodium.
Cholesterol in mg: This is a waxy substance produced naturally in the body but also comes into our bodies from food (Healthline, 2017). We do not need to ingest more of this from food, but it is largely unavoidable. According to FDA, the goal is less than 300 mg per day. (FDA, 2021).
The vitamins listed in mcg or mg: I won’t go into this one in any depth because I am writing supplement blogs; however, if you want further information on what vitamins to get in your diet, check out this site: FDA – Interactive Nutrition Labels
**I also got to be honest and say that I DO NOT READ THIS PART OF THE LABEL. Unless you are low on iron, which if you are you are probably supplementing with it, I do not focus on this. If I am low on iron, I look up iron-rich foods and buy them (yay spinach!).
Ingredient List 101
The basic thing to know about an ingredient list is that you want to know what it says rather than feel you are eating fake food. “The ingredient list shows each ingredient in a food by its common or usual name. Ingredients are listed in descending order by weight, so the ingredient that weighs the most in the product is listed first, and the ingredient that weighs the least is listed last” (FDA, 2021). So, back to the whey protein example from a previous blog. If you are looking for whey protein isolate, and whey protein is the fifth ingredient, not the first, on the list, this should make you pause. You want to be eating what you think you are eating as the first two ingredients.
Common SNEAKY Ingredients
This list is not exhaustive, it is just the ones I see most often.
- Xantham Gum – thickening/stabilizing agent
- Calcium Carbonate – inexpensive calcium supplement
- Fake Sugars That Have a Million Names (See this cheat sheet HERE).
- Real Sugar will say: Sugar (haha). However, it might also come across as syrup, and we all know high-fructose corn syrup is not the best thing for you.
- High-Fructose Corn Syrup: Sweetener made from corn; rich in the simple sugar fructose
- Citric Acid – Preservative in canned tomatoes
- Ascorbic Acid – Color stabilizer
- Sodium Nitrite – Preservative
- Guar Gum – thickener (all gums tend to be thickeners!)
- Carrageenan – extract from red seaweed; common in deli meat; off limits for Whole30; can be avoided if choose organic deli meats
- Sodium Benzoate – preservative in carbonated drinks
- Yeast Extract – added to snack foods to boost flavor
- Natural flavors – flavoring agent common in teas and really a lot of foods
(Cite: Whole 30 Cheat Sheet; Healthline, 2017)
So, How Do I Know If I Should Eat Something?
Now that I have walked through a lot of fun facts about what you are reading on the labels and lists; you are probably wondering: Should I eat it or not? How the hell do I pick out food?!
Well, I will point out a couple things to look out for quickly if you are interested.
- Try to pick foods where you can READ ALL THE INGREDIENTS AND KNOW WHAT THEY ARE. This can be tricky when there are 8000 ingredients. So, stick with the top 5 and try to find foods with less ingredients. Under 8 ingredients seems like a reasonable goal. Ask yourself:
- Are these REAL FOODS I KNOW?
- Are these an additive I know?
- Would I be comfortable putting this in my body knowing that I do not know what I am putting in my body?
- The calories and nutrients can sometimes matter less than the ingredients themselves, which goes hand in hand with the first point. Some of the “low calorie stuff” is riddled with crappy, manufactured ingredients! Do not mistaken low calorie for healthy. Eggs are healthier than a manufactured shake that a health industry tells you to eat.
- If you are trying to lose weight, pay attention to calories and macronutrients.
- If you are following a specific diet, pay attention to macronutrients.
- If you are trying to eat less sugar, pay attention to sugar. You should check sugar out when considering the preconceived value of healthy foods. Is it healthy? Well, high amounts of sugar could be a sign that the food is not as good for you as you think. A lot of research has been done on the inflammation effects of sugar and the similarity to drug addiction that a sugar addiction can induce (Sugar Crush, 2015)
- Oh yeah – Sugar Crush is a GOOD BOOK ON THIS TOPIC!
Final note: There is no hard and fast rule for nutrients labels. Everything I have shared with you is from years of reading, research, and fad diet attempts. Learn more! Be curious about what you are eating. It does not always have to be perfect for you, but if you aim to structure your life by the 80/20 rule (80% good for you, 20% whatever), you should be just fine.
Okay friends – let me know if this was helpful! I hope it helped clear up some questions I have gotten, but I am more than happy to clarify anything in the comments. As always, thanks for reading!
-NASM CNC Course