The Real Way to Read a Nutrition Label

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Today we are chatting about nutrition labels, how to read them, and what to really look at when gazing at the information on the back of a food product. You may think it’s easy to understand what all that information is, but there’s more to it! (Of course, because this is nutrition, after all!)

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 2016 announced new guidelines for nutrition labels on all packaged and boxed foods. These new labels slightly differ in both appearance and information than the old labels that we’re all familiar with.

These new guidelines demonstrate a shift in the nutrition industry -- which is much needed on all fronts-- to reflect updates in scientific information. In my opinion, these new labels are a positive change and do give more nutrition information, but I’m going to give you an idea of what you really should be looking at when reading a nutrition label, and what’s important.

Here’s a side by side comparison of what the old nutrition label looked like and the new: 

 Source: https://www.fda.gov/Food/GuidanceRegulation/GuidanceDocumentsRegulatoryInformation/LabelingNutrition/ucm385663.htm

 Source: https://www.fda.gov/Food/GuidanceRegulation/GuidanceDocumentsRegulatoryInformation/LabelingNutrition/ucm385663.htm

There are several problems with both the old and new nutrition labels. As a nutritionist who promotes a real, whole food approach, I encourage my clients to eat many foods that don’t even have a nutrition label! You won’t find nutrition labels on fruits and vegetables, so eat up.

However, on other products that do have a nutrition label, the number one thing I encourage you to do -- before reading the calories, before looking at the sugars, the fat or the nutrients-- is to READ THE INGREDIENTS. Even, perhaps might I suggest don’t read the nutrition facts. Read the ingredients instead!

But what about the CALORIES?!

-I don’t encourage you to count calories. In some specific instances calorie counting is helpful and becomes appropriate, but if your goal is to maintain or lose weight, live healthfully, feel great, stay sane and have a positive relationship with food (I’m guessing that’s most of us!) then counting calories will not be the way to achieve this.

-As you saw above, the new nutrition label draws lots of attention to the calories section, increasing the font size and bolding. This easily leads people to believe calories are the MOST IMPORTANT fact, and what we should all be paying attention to.  The diet and nutrition industry gives calories ALL the spotlight, and they just don’t deserve it. There is a whole slew of other functions in the body that food affects besides how much energy it provides. Things like blood sugar, thyroid function, gut health, and hormone balance have a tremendous affect on our weight. If you hear a nutritionist tell you it’s all about “calories is vs. calories out” then you should find another nutritionist, fast.

But what about the FAT?!

-Fat is a complex and perhaps one of the most misinterpreted topics in nutrition science today that deserves its own blog post in itself, but I will summarize quickly that fat is not to be feared. Saturated fat began its demonizing descent in the 1950’s when Ancel Keys published his Seven Countries Study hypothesizing diets high in fat were related to heart disease. It was later confirmed by Keys himself that he cherry picked the data to fit his hypothesis in this study and the conclusion was not scientifically sound. Meanwhile, the American Heart Association took this skewed data to heart (pun intended!) and began recommending diets low in fat for health. This is still recommended today, despite follow up research and more accurate data suggesting fat is not to be avoided and does not cause heart disease.

-The new nutrition labels now list the types of fats a product contains, saturated and trans fats. The FDA was on the right track with including trans fats, as trans fats are damaging and there is significant research to support this. But there’s a sneaky loophole in this labeling; even if a product contains zero grams of trans fats, it can contain anything less than one gram and still be labeled as trans fat free, or as 0 grams on the nutrition label. So basically, this category on the label is not a good indicator of trans fats in a product! The ingredients label however, will tell you if there is ANY trans fats.

But what about the SUGAR?!

-I do encourage people to look at the sugar content on the nutrition label. Because sugar is so deceivingly prevalent in our food supply, at least getting an idea of how much sugar is in a food product is smart. I wouldn’t prioritize this over reading the ingredients though! Read the ingredients, then look at how much sugar is in a product and evaluate.

-The new nutrition labels have an “added sugars” section, which differentiates what is natural sugar and what is added sugar in a product. An example of the natural sugar and added sugar in a product is yogurt: lactose is a naturally occurring sugar in milk, and shouldn’t be feared. However, if the added sugar category of a yogurt is higher than a few grams, then avoid it. Again, reading the ingredients label and knowing what to look for when it comes to added sugar, and what it’s called, will give you an idea if a manufacturer has added sugars too.

But what about the SERVING SIZE?!

-The drawback when it comes to considering the serving size of a product is you’re letting a recommended number dictate how much of a food you eat instead of relying on natural hunger cues and your intuitive eating patterns. In most instances the serving size is just a distraction to listening to our bodies and allowing our hunger to determine how much of something we eat. It takes practice and patience to learn how to listen to our bodies in order to hear these cues, but this is a key step when it comes to maintaining a healthy and relaxed relationship with food.

-The FDA has taken into account the fact that people are consuming more and more food in one sitting by increasing the serving sizes on products on the new nutrition labels. For example, a pint of ice cream used to be considered 4 servings. Meaning you should eat ¼ of the pint in one sitting and save the rest for later, But, the FDA is clued into the fact that this rarely happens and people tend to overeat…so, they’ve upped the serving size to 3 servings per a pint of ice cream. Meaning you can eat 1/3 of the pint in one sitting now. So let me get this straight…just because Americans are eating more, neglecting to listen to their hunger cues and generally are addicted to sugary foods we are now encouraging this by upping the serving size?! Don’t get me wrong, if you want to eat a whole pint then go ahead! I recognize most people don’t take the serving size recommendations on food labels seriously, either. But I think this upping in the serving size will deceivingly give people a “pass” to eat more and think it’s ok because it’s “just one serving”.

Ultimately, most people doesn’t understand that these nutrition labels are purely a set of numbers and it takes more than simply reading these numbers to interpret them and understand how each value affects the body. Anyone can read the numbers on the back of a box. But understanding these numbers and how they work together is more challenging.

So, now that I’ve told you all not to pay so much attention to the nutrition label and read the ingredients instead, you’re probably all wondering what to look for in the ingredients and how to determine if something is healthy!  That’s why I am starting a series of blog posts all about reading ingredient labels on products. Stay tuned in the next few weeks for these follow up blog posts!

For more information about the new labels visit this FDA website

As always, let me know if you have any questions and thanks for reading! If you’re interested in one-on-one nutrition coaching with me where you can get more information about nutrition labels, ingredients and how to eat healthy, click here to get in touch!