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Label Reading 101: How To Read Nutrition Labels and Claims

Why are nutrition labels not only confusing but so deceiving sometimes? Here are some helpful tips on how to not spend hours at the grocery store. Label reading doesn’t have to be so hard! 

For starters:

Serving Size: No matter if you are trying to follow keto, paleo, or just trying to reduce your calories, serving size is super important. Even though the generic serving size on the bag may not be perfect for you, the numbers below are all based off of that serving. Take the time to measure it out and see what the serving looks like. Most of us are not as accurate as we’d like to think we are.

Ingredient List: Head to the ingredient list. Look to see what the heck they are putting in there! Become educated on the added sugar terminology and other additives that aren’t so great. Keep it short. If there are words you can’t read or you have a bad feeling about, are at the beginning of the list, that means the food your are buying is mostly made up of that ingredient. Consider putting it back and looking for healthier alternatives.

General Guidelines:

Sugar: Really focus on reducing the ADDED sugar (not talking about natural). Added sugars contribute zero nutrients but many added calories that can lead to extra pounds or even obesity, thereby reducing heart health.

-The easiest way to tell if there’s sugar in your food is to look for words ending in “ose:” sucrose, dextrose, glucose, fructose, lactose, maltose. Also look for anything with the word “cane,” “nectar,” or “syrup.”

Fat: Polyunsaturated fats are generally considered the “healthy” fats. This can be confusing becausethere are two types of polyunsaturated fat: omega-3s (the heart-healthy, anti-inflammatory ones) and omega-6s (the inflammation-inducing, fat-storing ones but are essential in certain amounts). The bottom line is to limit saturated fats, look at the ingredients, increase monounsaturated fats (ex. nuts, olive oil, avocado, etc.)

Sodium: The Dietary Guidelines for Americans have been updated and recommend consuming less than 2,300 mg of sodium per day. I typically encourage striving for less than 2000-1500mg. Too much salt can be tough on our hearts, contributing to high blood pressure and an increased risk of heart disease. You should aim to keep meals under 500 mg of sodium and definitely no more than 1,000 mg. If you are having a salty meal, make sure to drink water and be mindful at your other meals. Eating out less and reducing processed foods can make big impacts!

Natural: according to the USDA definition, “natural” does not contain artificial ingredients or preservatives and the ingredients are only minimally processed. However, they may contain antibiotics, growth hormones, and other similar chemicals. Regulations are fairly lenient for foods labeled “natural.” I would not always guarantee this label as always “natural”.

Organic: Produce and other ingredients are grown without the use of pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, genetically modified organisms, or ionizing radiation. Animals that produce meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy products do not take antibiotics or growth hormones. The USDA regulates organic product labels much more thoroughly than they do with and foods labeled “organic” are more likely to actually be organic.

Cage Free/Free Range: For a product to be labeled “free range” the animals cannot be contained in any way and must be allowed to roam and forage freely over a large area of open land. This label is minimally regulated. For example cage free could mean the company could be packing millions of chickens into a facility full of floor-to-ceiling aviary systems. Yikes!

Grass Fed: By definition a “grass fed” animal is one that is raised primarily on ranges rather than in a feedlot, which means that they can be contained, as long as they are allowed to graze. The USDA defines “grass fed” as it applies to labeling but does not regulate it in any way.

Whole Grain: The Whole Grains Council has attempted to simplify the process of searching for whole grain foods with the introduction of a Whole Grain Stamp to help consumers out. There are two varieties of the stamp: the Basic Stamp and the 100% Stamp. If a product has received the 100% Stamp, all its grain ingredients are whole grains, and it contains a minimum of 16 g (a full serving) of whole grain. If a product has the Basic Stamp, it has at least 8 g of whole grain, but it also may contain some refined grain.

 “Reduced” and “Low”:These two words don’t mean the same thing. A food that says reduced simply means it contains at least 25 percent less of something. For example, a reduced sodium soy sauce may contain 25 percent less sodium than the original version, but that doesn’t mean it’s low in sodium.

Reduced isn’t always what it’s cracked up to be either. For example reduced fat nut butter, takes away heart healthy fats which promotes satiety and is full of nutrients. Try comparing labels to the regular option and see what the differences really are.

Zero and Free: Labeling laws allow foods with less than 0.5 grams of trans fat to be labeled trans fat free or say zero grams, but if a food contains 0.4 grams and you eat 10 servings of it over the week, you actually consumed 4 grams of trans fat, not zero. If you see the words partially hydrogenated, put it back.

Sugar Freecan be deceiving too. It doesn’t always mean it’s calorie or carb free. Sugar alcohols can also cause G.I distress.

Paleo: typically does not have wheat, gluten, sugars, soy, corn or dairy. Paleo processed foods can still be “junk foods” so don’t be fooled!

Whole30: must only have ingredients on Whole30 approved list

  • No added sugar or artificial sweeteners
  • No alcohol
  • No grains
  • No legumes
  • No dairy

Reading labels can be tough and depending on your nutrition goals it’s important to know how!

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