Making Sense of Nutrition Labels

May 12, 2021

Food labels can be confusing and require us to do calculations. But as a consumer, you should want to know what you are eating.

Here’s the scoop – nutrition facts labels only tell you some of the story, there’s more. Food companies are only going to tell you what they HAVE to tell you. It’s up to you to figure out the rest. Which is not always so simple. Here’s a helpful guide to make sense of food labels:

  • Before you get overwhelmed with the numbers, calories, fats, etc. take a look at the list of the ingredients. The list is not random. Ingredients are listed by amount. Meaning, whatever ingredient is the largest proportionately in the recipe, that is the ingredient you will see first. So if there is a lot of sugar or salt or oil in the food item, they are going to be listed as one of the first ingredients. This is important to note because we should know the composition of the foods we eat. Another pro tip: the shorter the list, the better. Less is more when it comes to nutrition.
  • Next, look at the Serving Size. This is the tricky part. They typically use a large font on the calories to draw you in and make you overlook the serving size, but we need to understand all the data in terms of how much per serving. So if 2 Tbsp of peanut butter is the serving size noted on the jar label, then everything you read below needs to be calculated in terms of 2 Tbsp.
  • Let’s continue with this example for calories and macronutrients. If that same jar of peanut butter, notes 90 calories and XXgm of Total Fat, XXgm of Total Carbohydrate and XXgm of Protein, be aware that if you eat 4 Tbsp of peanut butter then you are consuming double of calories, fat, carbs, and protein that are noted on the label.
  • Many people may not even look at % Daily Value but it’s actually the most useful thing on the label, in my opinion. We don’t eat nutrients, we eat food. And food is a complex mix of nutrients that our bodies need to do what it does. So % Daily Value helps us understand the bigger picture. In other words, if I eat 2 Tbsp of this peanut butter what percentage of my daily needs/allowances of nutrients does this cover?
  • Greens don’t always have to be spinach or kale, another option you may find in the spring is swiss chard. Rainbow chard has those beautiful rainbow-colored stalks that immediately draw you in. Swiss chard is another great source for your Vitamins A, C, and K. Use these colorful and versatile greens in a basic veggie saute or in soup, but if you are looking to get creative, try using it in a quiche recipe. This can be a dairy based quiche or a vegan quiche.
  • And to take it a step further, food labels don’t even tell you much about the micronutrients and the trace minerals. Because in reality it’s not difficult to consume what we need for most of these. But ones that do show up are sodium, potassium, you may see Vitamin A, calcium, iron, etc. Sodium is important to note. We consume much more sodium than we need, 2300 milligrams a day is typically all we need and it’s a lot easier to exceed that limit than you think. If you feel bloated, measuring your sodium intake is a good place to start. But the great thing about Sodium is that it is balanced out by our potassium intake. Foods high in potassium include artichokes, bananas, apricots, prunes, nuts, etc. so when you think sodium, think potassium.

All in all, nutrition facts labels can be useful but they require knowledge. Don’t be so quick to  label a food “bad” because you saw too many calories or too much sodium. Food is not that simple and there is more to decipher from a label. And labels are improving! The addition of trans fats, added sugar, dietary fiber, these are all so useful to know. So utilize the label even if it means spending 30 extra seconds looking at an item before you throw it in your shopping cart.