If you haven’t noticed yet, it’s pretty obvious that the labels on the front of foods aren’t [usually] there to inform or help consumers, they’re there to entice consumers to buy a product.
Like the picture above, it’s easy to find multiple versions of the same food product wherever you look in the grocery store. This particular salad dressing comes in “regular”, “lite”, and “fat-free”. How does one decide which to get when they’re trying to make a health-conscious choice?
First, it’s important to be wary of foods that make big claims on their labels. “High in protein”, “good source of fiber”, and “made with 26 whole grains” are displayed to appeal to the consumer, not necessarily to provide accurate (especially dependent on the individual) benefits. Food companies can use words and phrases on their labels without much accountability, making it harder for consumers to be able to trust a label and truly whether or not it’s a “good source of protein” (what does “good” mean anyway?).
Secondly, it’s important to know what you want your body to get from the food. If you want to be satisfied for a longer period of time but always choose “lite” salad dressing because it has fewer calories when there’s a similar version with more calories and the first ingredient is olive oil, then you’re likely not going to be as satisfied as you wish because your salad is lacking that healthy fat.
This same example goes for comparing two foods with dissimilar amounts of protein and fiber. We know that fiber and protein both help with satiety, so if that’s a goal of yours (say, with an afternoon snack) it would obviously be a wise choice to compare snack choices and choose the one with more fiber and protein.
Lastly, learn how to compare labels of similar foods by practicing often. You don’t always need to spend an hour reading labels at the grocery store (although, that does sound exciting), but being able to pick up two foods that look similar and choosing the better one is a great skill to have.
For example, if you’re looking for a decent cereal to have for breakfast or for your kids, you’re likely to find 8 different varieties that all look like Cheerios. If you’re like me, you’ll grab two of the most appealing looking boxes with the cheapest price tag, and you’ll compare the labels. Follow these steps and make your choice:
- What’s the serving size? (Hopefully, they’re the same to make it easy).
- How many calories?
- How many grams of carbs?
- How much protein?
- How much fiber?
- How much sugar?
- What are the first 3 ingredients?
And done. That amount of info should give you more than enough to make a decision.
Main things to look for on the nutrition facts label:
- Serving size and overall calories. Make sure you know how much you’re eating (who really only ever eats 1/2 cup of ice cream at a time?) within each serving. If you’re having a large portion, do a little mental math and make sure you’re okay with the amount you’re eating.
- Carbs. If you’re an athlete or not, being mindful of how many carbs are in a certain food is a wise choice. If you’re inactive, knowing how many grams of carbs are in a typical food or meal of yours will help you stay consistent from meal to meal so you don’t go overboard when most of your day is sedentary. If you’re an athlete, consuming higher-carb foods around training and on heavy training days is a simple and easy way to allow your body to use more carbs for fuel.
- Sugar. This goes without saying – but instead of just being “afraid of foods with added sugar”, knowing how to choose foods with less sugar can ultimately reduce your overall calories and stray you away from getting used to foods that are designed to keep you coming back for more – making whole foods more appealing to the taste buds.
- Protein. If you want better recovery, increased satiety, and an overall leaner body (speaking generally), choose snacks and meals that are labeled that include a “fair” amount of protein. Since that’s extremely vague, here are a couple examples:
- In a protein/breakfast/power bar, find one with as much, if not more, protein than sugar (~20g).
- In a tortilla, find one with at least 6g of protein.
- In a piece of bread, find one with at least 5g of protein.
- In a yogurt, find one with more protein than sugar (like the protein bar example).
- For meals, a “fair” amount would be around 20-30g.
- For snacks, a “fair” amount would be around 8-15g.
- Fiber. Fiber, like protein, greatly affects satiety. Fiber is mainly found in whole foods naturally, so if you’re getting a decent amount of fiber (~25g/day for women and ~35g/day for men) from whole foods, you’re probably eating several servings of fruits/veggies or filling grains like oats, quinoa, and rice each day too.
- Foods like cheap bread and tortillas are usually low in fiber, but it’s very easy to find versions of both of those, among other foods, that contain 5-10g of fiber per serving instead of the commonly found 2-4g. That’s a huge difference most people miss out on when it comes to eating those types of foods.
Main things to look for within the ingredient label include:
- What are the first 1-3 ingredients? Do they line up with what you’d expect after looking at the front of the package?
- What types of added ingredients you wouldn’t expect are included? Are you okay with them being in the food, or could you find a similar product that doesn’t contain them? If you run across something you don’t recognize, look it up!
- Hydrogenated oils are typically hidden in baked goods, cookies, and crackers even when ingredient labels list “0g trans fat“. They’re on their way out of the food industry for good reason but can still be found in many commonly eaten foods.
Most importantly, try to gather as much info as you can about a food before you decide to make it a regular part of your diet. There are too many varieties of foods out there to always be “right”, but having the knowledge and skills to be able to read a label and make a conscious choice will make a big difference in the long run.
To read the FDA’s comprehensive Food Labeling Guide: