The nutrition label on the back of all your food products might be getting a makeover pretty soon, but no matter how it changes, there are some key things to look for on food labels to keep you healthy and in the loop. This year, there has been a proposal for a new nutrition label to point out some of the most important items on the food label that impact people’s health the most. Nutrition labels are confusing to people that don’t really understand what they mean, or who are easily misconstrued by the numbers. People can read the calorie content, but don’t always understand where the calories really come from, and how to tell if they're high quality. Just because something is low calorie doesn't mean it's healthy, and vice versa. I thought it might be helpful to point out the most important things to look for on food labels, so you can effectively make the best choices for you no matter how much the label changes over time.
Before you look at the calories or fat grams, I believe the most important item of all things to look for on food labels is the sugar content. Sugar is by far the most detrimental thing you can consume for your health, and leads more people to gain weight, develop food addictions, mood disorders, acne, chronic digestive issues, and more. So, no matter how natural the product states it is, or even if the sugars come from natural sweeteners, stay clear of anything with over 5 grams of sugar per serving. Unless the food is pure fruit, you absolutely do not need more sugar than that on any processed food - period.
Next after you check out the sugar, look at the total carbohydrates. Sugar, fiber, and other carbs all fall under the carbohydrate category, and they all affect your insulin in a different way. Your body can use fiber to slow down digestion, regulate your blood sugar, and even aid in weight loss. Fiber is also calorie-free, since it goes completely undigested out of your body. Sugar, on the other hand has no fiber, and is purely glucose, fructose, or sucrose, which gets processed immediately in your blood stream, and is excreted even quicker. This means your glycemic index rises quicker, your insulin levels rise causing your cells to store fat, and guess what? As soon as it leaves your blood stream, you become tired, and crave more sugar to pick your blood sugar back up, which leads you to crave more. See the viscious cycle here? It's why food companies add so much sugar to your food. They want you to eat more and buy more! You never want most of the carbohydrates in a food to be consumed of mostly sugar. So, take a look at the total carbs and see how much of those carbs come from fiber. FIBER IS YOUR FRIEND GIRLS! The more, the better. Whatever’s left over is either sugar, or “other” carbs, which are neither sugar or fiber. Optimally, any high carbohydrate food like grains or fruit should have at least 5 grams of fiber per serving.
Now I don’t want you to fear fat, but instead, be aware of where it comes from. Look at the fat grams, and under the Total Fat portion,you’ll see a breakdown of monounsaturated, polyunsaturated, and saturated fats. Not all labels list all three of these, but many do. Some also list trans fats, which should always be 0. Optimally you want most of the fats to come from monounsaturated fats. Polyunsaturated fats are also fine, but shouldn't be in the form of vegetable oils or processed oils like canola. Monounsaturated fats from raw nuts, seeds, avocados, dark chocolate, and olive oil, are the best for you. Not all saturated fat is the enemy either if it comes from plant food. Some have been found to be good for your heart and cholesterol. Anytime you buy a processed food, be sure you stay clear of anything with trans fats just to be safe. After that, it depends more on where the fats come from than the total fat content, to decide if the food is really healthy or unhealthy.
Now, take a peek at the protein content on your food labels. One important reason to do this, is optimally, you should have least 5 grams of protein in every meal or snack you eat. While I don’t think you need to overload on protein, I think looking at the protein content is important because it stabilizes your blood sugar longer, increases satiety of your appetite, lowers the glycemic index of foods, can help boost your metabolism, and even improve mental focus. Always avoid products with soy protein, as this is highly processed. Optimally, you want your protein to come from whole foods for the healthiest choice possible.
I would by far say this is the most important part of any food label you’ll ever read. No matter if something is low fat, low carb, high in fiber or high in protein, it doesn’t matter one bit if the ingredients are highly processed. Food manufacturers today know that consumers want lower fat, lower carb, higher fiber and higher protein foods, so guess what? Many are using cheap sources of these nutrients, to allow their products to be marketed as such. Ingredients like soy protein, soy isolate, chicory, inulin, and other highly processed ingredients are now being added to foods just to make the nutrition equation come out the way consumers want to see it. What people don’t understand is that highly-processed ingredients are hard on digestion, can possibly be toxic to your body, less satisfying, and many of them are genetically modified. The best way to tell the quality of your food is to read the ingredient list. If you don’t know what is in the ingredient list, you probably don’t need to buy it. You should be able to recognize almost every single ingredient as a whole food. If you don’t, put it back and buy something that is a whole food instead.
Salt and sugar are added to everything these days. Why? Because they make food taste good, leave you wanting more, which means more profit for food companies. Sodium ( salt), is not the enemy, and in fact you need it, but you don’t need it in the form of highly processed foods. Real salt, or high mineral salt, is the type of sodium your body wants. This comes from high quality sea salt, Himalayan salt, black salt, or other unrefined types of salt. If the ingredient label simply says “salt”, then put it back on the shelf and pick up something better. Optimally, you want the sodium count of your foods to be less than 200 mg, or preferably 100 milligrams, per serving from processed foods. Better yet, buy foods with no added salt like fresh fruits and vegetables, along with whole grains, beans, legumes, nuts, seeds, and healthy fats.
It always kills me to hear someone say, “Oh, but this ice cream is only 100 calories, so it must be healthy”, or something like that. For one, I feel sorry for us as a nation, because we’ve been taught to look at the calories in our food, and nothing else. Hopefully, that will change very soon with the new nutrition labels which will also change the serving size. That 100 calories is probably only for ½ cup of ice cream, which is about a third or a fourth of what most people consume in one sitting. Who really just eats ½ cup of ice cream anymore? Plus, most low calorie ice creams have to be so highly processed to make them low calorie, they’re not even worth your time or money. So while many people fill a bowl with that 100 calorie ice cream, their serving size really ends up being equal to 300-400 calories instead. The proposed new nutrition label by the government this year, has said that the serving size will be more accurately given for what people really eat, helping to reveal the true calorie count of foods. I’m not sure how this will affect the way food companies process their food, but I do think this is a step in the right direction. Either way, when you buy a food product, be sure you look at the serving size, not just the calorie count. Calories do matter, but what matters more is where they come from, and how much food is within that calorie count.
I can tell you that I hardly ever look at the calorie count on a food product anymore, and I never look at bottom where it gives daily values anymore either. What I do look at first thing is the sugar content, then the fiber and total carbohydrate content, and then I read the ingredients list. Those things will usually tell me how healthy that food is without needing to look at anything else most of the time. I stick with foods that have fewer than five ingredients on a nutrition label, with preferably one or two, or better yet, none. Instead of looking at just the calories on a label, be sure you look at these things above first. This will tell you just how healthy your food really is, and keep you from wasting time or money on foods that aren’t. What do you look for on a food label?