It’s a new year which means many people are starting to work on resolutions. From some, that may mean healthy diet changes and heading back to the gym. If you’re one of those people looking to eat healthier this year, knowing how to read a nutrition label can help. It may seem straight forward, but really understanding the content of a nutrition label can be tricky. You may not always be getting what you think.
4 Common Mistakes When Reading a Nutrition Label
You’re Not Paying Attention to Serving Size
The calories and macronutrient grams listed on a nutrition label are usually in relation to serving size. Many of us eat much more than the serving size listed—which can be deceiving as servings may be portioned smaller to make the product appear healthier. For example, those “healthy” smoothies sold in the grocery store. You may think you’re getting 120 calories and maybe 20 grams of sugar, when in reality the bottle contains 2.5 servings—oops. True, there may be some good nutrients in there, but with 2.5 servings that’s a lot more calories and sugar than you may have intended.
You’re Not Getting Enough Nutrients
You may think you’re getting enough nutrients such as vitamins, but you’re not. The vitamin content is based on the minimum recommended daily allowance (RDA)—an outdated and likely inadequate recommendation that hasn’t been revised in decades. Don’t rely on packaged foods for your intake of vitamins and minerals. Instead, rely on fresh fruits and vegetables and a multi-vitamin supplement for your intake. In the case of calcium, this may be particularly true. Women and kids typically need more calcium than men, yet the recommended daily allowance of calcium is listed the same.
Or You’re Getting Too Much…
Sometimes product values are given as a percentage based on either a 2,000 or 2,500 calories per day diet. That may be helpful if a person actually keeps track of their intake throughout the day. Otherwise, it has little meaning or can even lead one to eat something thinking “well, it is only 25% of my fat for the day,” and not consider what is really happening. If you have that train of thought 6 - 7 times a day with products containing similar percentages—guess what? You just ate 75% more fat than you were supposed to for the day. Yikes.
You Think Certain Words Are Healthy, But Sometimes, They Aren’t
Sometimes the words manufacturers use to market their products can be misleading. It’s important to understand the benefits that are of value to you in a product and define it for yourself before you go searching for it. Example, how do you define the term “organic”? If eating organic foods are important to you, then look for products labeled with a “certified organic or USDA organic” seal to be sure. Labeling on packages may not necessarily be untruthful, but can be deceptive. Another example is when manufacturers add whole gains or omega-3s to a food that is high in trans-fats or high in refined sugar—this does not counter the negative effects of that food and somehow make it healthy.One common deception that bothers me is when manufacturers add whole grains to the high sugar cereals we all loved as a child. No matter what you add to Cocoa Puffs, they’re still Cocoa Puffs. By the way, whole grains simply mean that all three components of the grain are included in the product—meaning all of the potential nutrient-rich components are there. Whole wheat on the other hand, is simply whole grains that are crushed or ground, and still must contain the same proportions as in the natural state.
One more label to be leery of refers to protein. Marketing labels that highlight “Added Protein” or “with Protein”, often use these terms as a selling point to get a person to buy an otherwise nutritionally poor product, typically high in sugar or fat. They focus on the added protein element, normally 4 grams of protein, which is less than one egg and not going to make that big of a difference to the nutritional value of a product that contains none naturally.
Check out some other marketing terms below to better understand what they typically mean.
|Reduced sugar||25% less than the original product|
|Low-calorie||Less than 1/3 the calories of the original|
|High fiber||Greater than 5 grams per serving|
|Good source of Fiber||2.5 grams to 5 grams of fiber per serving|
|Reduced fat||At least 25% less fat than the original|
|Low or Lower-Fat||Less than 3 grams fat/serving|
|Lite||One-third the calories or one-half the fat|
Take time to read and truly understand the nutritional value of what you are eating. Compare the serving size versus portion you intend to eat, and keep track of your daily intake for the overall calories and macronutrient balance that align with your goals. Here’s to wishing you a happy and nutritionally sound New Year.
Article By Jeff Pearl, MD
Dr. Jeff is a trained general, pediatric cardiac, and transplant surgeon. Nutrition has always been an important concern for surgeons in regards to patients healing from surgery. He has had a longstanding interest in health, nutrition and supplements, and been an advocate of the use of nutrition and supplements in the hospital setting to aid in his patient’s recovery. He has a history of basic science and clinical research and a keen ability to interpret studies and statistics to determine their true significance. He is the father and step-father to several teenage athletes and knows firsthand the challenges they face in balancing their time, eating habits and use of supplements. He is adamant about trying to educate our youth about better nutrition. Dr. Jeff recognizes the challenges that healthcare faces and the need for people to take charge of their own health and disease prevention. He loves being outside and is one of those crazy few seen hiking or biking in the middle of the day in summer.