Food labels are important, because everybody should know what they’re eating. Unfortunately reading every word of every label is easier said than done, unless you want to reserve all day for your grocery shopping trip. For the average person, there are only a couple pieces of information that you need to glean from the labels:
By now, everyone knows to watch their calories. Calories are the energy that our body uses to function, but over consuming this energy causes your body to store the excess as fat. Luckily, the calorie count is one of the first lines on the nutrition label, easily drawing your eyes to it.
Serving sizes/servings per container
Serving sizes require a little more attention when reading food labels. If you check the number of calories in a packaged food– but not the number of servings in the container– you may find yourself eating two or more of these servings in one go! For example, the label on a 20oz. bottle of soda says “110 calories”– not too bad for a giant soda. But then if you look up at the Servings per Container line, it says there are 2.5 servings in one bottle, making it 275 calories.
Nutrients to maximize: fiber, vitamins, minerals
When you move further down the list, the label lists the major nutrients in the food. Fiber, vitamins (Vitamins A, B, C, D, E, etc) and minerals (calcium, iron, magnesium, potassium, etc) are all important additions to one’s diet.
Nutrients to minimize: saturated fat, trans fat, sodium, sugars
Saturated and trans fats, sodium, and sugar can all cause health risks if eaten in excess. Fats and added sugar can contribute to obesity, while too much sodium has been shown to increase blood pressure. Many packaged or restaurant foods have higher amounts of these ingredients than one might expect, so it’s easy to overconsume.
Ingredient list: Split up multiple names for “hidden” sugar
At the bottom of the nutrition label, you’ll find the ingredient list. They are listed in order of quantity, so expect the first few ingredients to be included in large amounts, while there may only be traces of the last couple ingredients in your food. One important thing to look for is “hidden” sugar in the ingredient list. Sugar comes in many forms– high fructose corn syrup, agave nectar, barley malt syrup, dehydrated cane juice, and malt syrup, just to name a few. A single food item can contain multiple forms, meaning that there is less of each one so they fall closer to the end of the ingredient list.