How to read nutrition labels to make healthy food choices

Food labels are tricky! The food market is a multi-million-dollar industry, and the players are willing to bring trendy or niche foods with confusing claims. I can testify to that! As someone living with celiac disease, I became a label addict. I learned from my mistakes, especially after landing in the US without utterly understanding the food regulations. I bought many products claiming to be gluten-free to learn later that they shared a facility or equipment that processes wheat, or they were not safe for people with celiac disease. Can you imagine my frustration? In the US, foods that carry the label “gluten-free” must contain less than 20 parts per million (ppm) of gluten, but they might share equipment or facility with gluten-containing foods. Recalls due to mislabeling or cross-contamination happen often.

Another problematic label: have you ever been confused about the “sugar-free”, “no added sugar”, or “unsweetened” statements? Yes, there's a difference between them. Sugar-free means a product contains less than 0.5g of sugar per portion. Keep an eye on the actual number of servings in the food, though. The "no added sugar" claim states that sugar was not added during processing or packing, but the product might be naturally high in sugar or have an unhealthy sugar substitute added to it. Unsweet means the product contains no added sugars, no artificial sweeteners, or sugar alcohols. However, still, it may have naturally occurring sugars.

So, moving on to the whole product label, here are some tips to avoid falling into traps.

Scam the ingredients list

What comes first tells the product quality. The ingredients are listed from largest to smallest quantity based on weight. For instance, if you buy a chocolate bar, and you see "sugar, glucose syrup, skimmed milk powder, and cocoa butter" listed in order as ingredients, you know that the product is a mix of sugar, milk, and fat. And sugar, the first ingredient, probably makes up for more than 30% of the product.

Try this exercise with bread. How many whole-grain, multigrain, seven-grain, 12-grain, all-natural, organic, gluten-free, seeded, or enriched are out there? Many of them are just trying to trick you. The manufacturer can add some seeds or grains to the recipe to make a claim, but the amount used of the ingredient is so little that doesn’t make much difference from the health benefits perspective. They might still be highly refined. For those who are not gluten-free, a better option is a 100% whole-wheat or whole-grain. And if you need to eat gluten-free, like me, my suggestion is to make homemade bread or stick to a safe and reliable brand.

Another thing to keep in mind when checking the ingredients list is that the longer the list, the more processed the product. Consider yogurt, for example. It should include milk and the bacterial cultures used to turn milk into yogurt. All the rest is extra, unnecessary, or unhealthy.

And if you find in the label words that don't look like food to you, avoid the product! There is a high chance it doesn't deserve to be called food.

Understand the Nutrition Facts

Calories are not the most relevant information you can get from the nutrition facts label. In my personal opinion, they are probably the least important - as calories do not reflect the nutritional value of any food. The main thing to keep in mind when grabbing a product is the serving size of it. The serving size makes all the difference to the information that comes next. The nutrient amounts shown on the label refer to the size of the serving. You might see the calories and figure they are not as high as you thought. Then, once you start eating the food, you end up eating much more than one portion, and perhaps more than half of your daily calorie needs at one sit.

The nutrition facts label highlights some nutrients that help you make better choices. It starts with the total amount and the type of fat. In the sequence comes cholesterol, sodium, and carbohydrates - broken down into sugar and dietary fiber. Proteins appear at the end. Vitamins and minerals may appear if present in significant amounts.

Fat considerations

Besides the total fat amount per serving, pay special attention to saturated fat. Saturated fat is usually present in beef, cheese, burger, dairy, ice cream.

When reading labels, consider the following:

High: more than 5g of saturated fat per 100g

Low: 1.5g of saturated fat or less per 100g

Red flag for trans-fat. The FDA prohibited food manufacturers from adding the major source of artificial trans fat to foods and beverages. However, if a product contains less than 0.5 g of total fat in a serving, it must list 0 grams trans fat on the food label. Trans-fat is the result of an industrial process that adds hydrogen to vegetable oil, which causes the oil to become solid at room temperature. Cakes, cookies, microwave popcorn, frozen pizza, stick margarine, fries, donuts, fried chicken, and non-dairy coffee creamer are some sources of trans-fat.

Reading sugar

The total sugar includes sugars naturally present in many nutritious foods or beverages, such as sugar in milk and fruits and added sugar. It's not easy to tell the amount we should aim for since there is a recommended amount for table sugar, but the reference varies for others. Then, my advice is to read the ingredient list and understand the source of sugar. And if you see added sugar, divide the grams by 4, and you will have the number of teaspoons of sugar that the product contains. The WHO recommends that the intake of free sugars should be reduced to less than 10% of total energy intake. A reduction to below 5% of total energy intake is ideal, meaning six teaspoons or 25 grams on a 2,000 calories/day diet.

High: more than 22.5g of total sugars per 100g

Low: 5g of total sugars or less per 100g

Sodium and Salt in food

Salt is made up of sodium and chloride and is the substance we add to food. Sodium, the mineral present in higher amounts in processed food with preservatives, is the one we should avoid. High consumption of sodium is associated with high blood pressure and can lead to health problems. The recommended amount for sodium is less than 2,300 milligrams (mg) per day, which means one teaspoon of salt per day.

When reading the label, consider the following:

High: 460 mg of sodium or less per serving or 20% of the Daily Value (DV)

Low: 140 mg of sodium or less per serving or 5% of the Daily Value (DV)