Here's How to Read a Nutrition Label

by: BRIDGET CONLIN

The grocery store is one of my favourite places in the world. So much so, that one summer, my parents stopped letting me go by myself because I kept coming home with enough food to feed a small village. I couldn’t help myself! However, as glorious as wandering the snack aisles of a grocery store is, there’s one aspect that always brought me serious anxiety—reading the dreaded nutrition label.

 

To quote the great philosopher Justin Bieber, “what do you mean?” was the constant question running through my mind every time I flipped over a granola bar to try translate its daunting label. I nodded my head yes to whatever I was reading, but wanted to say no when I understood that some granola bars have as much sugar as a doughnut. I realized that nutrition labels do, in fact, inform you about what you’re filling your body with and it’s actually not all about that calories (it was shocking for me too, I know), so I decided to wise up and learn what all those grams and percentages meant. As the kind and giving human that I am, I’ve decided to impart my wisdom on you beautiful people so you too can learn what the heck the difference between Fat and Saturated Fat is.

Welcome kittens – this is the part where I’m going to actually teach you something. Yay! The two first things we see when reading a nutrition label are serving size and calories (but we often overlook the serving size). Before you go face first into a pint of Ben & Jerry’s because it says 280 calories, stop and take a look at the serving size, which is ½ cup – not the whole pint. With four servings per container, the whole pint actually has 1,120 calories. Let’s use the below nutrition label from a pint of Ben & Jerry’s Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough ice cream for reference.


INGREDIENTS: CREAM, SKIM MILK, LIQUID SUGAR (SUGAR, WATER), WATER, WHEAT FLOUR, SUGAR, BROWN SUGAR, EGG YOLKS, BUTTER (CREAM, SALT), EXPELLER PRESSED SOYBEAN OIL, EGGS, COCONUT OIL, CHOCOLATE LIQUOR, VANILLA EXTRACT, COCOA (PROCESSED WITH ALKALI), COCOA POWDER, SALT, MOLASSES, GUAR GUM, COCOA BUTTER, NATURAL FLAVORS, CARRAGEENAN, MILKFAT, SOY LECITHIN.

In order to decode this nutrition label (that might as well be in another language), we will look at fat, cholesterol, sodium, carbohydrates, protein and the ingredient list. Keep in mind that these numbers are still only for ½ cup of ice cream!

Total Fat:

Fat has developed a negative connotation over the years, but the truth is that the good fats are required in our diets for health! The key is choosing the right type of fat. Unsaturated fats benefit your body, while saturated and trans fats can clog your arteries and negatively affect your heart health. The half cup of ice cream above contains 45% of the saturated fat we should have in a day! This doesn’t leave a lot of room for additional saturated fat in the day, especially if you eat more than one half cup of this ice cream (and we know it’s tempting to do so). Instead, we want to fill up on the “good”, unsaturated fats that help nourish your body from the inside out. These fats can be found in natural foods such as eggs, nuts and avocados. If you want more information about the difference between good fats and bad fats, read this handy guide here.

Cholesterol:

Just like fat, there is “good” cholesterol, and “bad” cholesterol. The good kind helps improve your heart health, while the bad kind will worsen your heart health. There is a pretty easy way to help distinguish between the two, which is by looking at where they come from. Good cholesterol will come from natural foods, such as eggs, olive oil, and fish; while the bad cholesterol will come from processed foods such as butter, pastries and, yes, ice cream. Therefore, half a cup of this yummy ice cream not only contains a fourth of your total daily recommended cholesterol intake, but it’s most likely the bad kind that we try to avoid. Looking for more information? Cholesterol can be confusing, but this breaks it down.

Sodium:

Sodium = Salt! This guy is pretty important to look at since sodium content has a big impact on heart and blood pressure health. Salt, like everything else, is healthy in moderation, but we want to make sure we don’t go overboard. The recommended intake of sodium for women is limited to 2,300 milligrams per day- this is equivalent to approximately one teaspoon of salt! This ice cream doesn’t contain a significant amount of sodium, however, it is best to avoid processed foods in order to minimize your sodium intake.

Total Carbohydrate:

You may begin to see a common theme present in the nutrition label, as carbs, like fat and cholesterol, have “good” and “bad” types, and it’s important to know the difference between the two. There is a long explanation of the difference between these carbs that you can check out here. But for our purposes, the best way to find out whether your food is full of good carbs or bad carbs, is to look at the fibre and sugar content. Fibre and sugar are two forms of carbs, with fibre falling in the “good” carb category, and sugar usually falling in the “bad” carb category. If you have a high fibre content and low sugar content, you’re good to go! If it’s the other way around, you may want to think twice. Once again, carbs from natural, whole foods like fruits, legumes and grains (ex. Quinoa), are always a safe bet, while the carbs from processed foods often aren’t your best friend.

Protein:

As you may or may not remember from bio class, protein is the building blocks of muscle. Therefore, it’s key that protein is one of the higher numbers on the label. There is no percentage next to protein because you can effectively has as much as you want every day, but it is recommended that teen girls intake approximately 46 grams per day.

Ingredients:

Ingredients are listed in order of quantity. So, there is the highest quantity of the first ingredient, and the lowest quantity of the last ingredient. The first ingredient in this ice cream is cream, which makes sense as to why the fat content is so high. When reading these labels, two rules of thumb to keep in mind are that any ingredient ending in “-ose” is sugar in disguise, and if you can’t pronounce or read an ingredient it’s probably best not to eat it. If the ingredient sounds like something you would put in a test tube in chemistry class, it’s likely an artificial product and not ideal for your body.

Do you have more questions about nutrition labels? They’re complicated, I know. Feel free to leave any q’s in the comments below!

 

 

COVER IMAGE: Pinterest

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