I get questions all the time about which convenient, snack-type foods I recommend. While I’m always happy to share my favorites, it’s obviously not possible for me to review every product or know what you have access to in your local stores. So…I’m sharing with you the six things I look at on nutrition labels to determine whether or not a food provides good nutritional value.
Now, most of my recommendations for a nutritious diet include foods that don’t have nutrition labels at all – things like vegetables, fruit, meat, eggs, whole grains, and so forth. But we all have at least an occasional need for convenient, packaged items and need to know how to decipher the information on the back of the box. Here’s what to pay attention to next time you’re at the grocery store.
This is the first place I look when I’m analyzing a food label. Really, the ingredients should tell us almost everything we need to know when deciding whether or not to buy a product. Unfortunately, many of the ingredient names are unfamiliar to us and we need to rely on some of the other facts to make a decision. Ideally, the ingredient list won’t be very long (5-10 items or less) and you can recognize everything on the list. Imagine that you were going to make this item at home – is this how you would make it? Any packaged foods are going to have added preservatives and stabilizers to make them shelf-stable, so there will likely be at least one or two things you’re not sure about. The most important things to avoid are: high fructose corn syrup, hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oils, artificial colors, MSG, aspartame, added sugars, and artificial sweeteners.
If you recognized added sweeteners on the ingredient list, it’s probably best to avoid the product. If you’re not sure if a product contains added sugars, look at the sugar value. Sugars are part of the overall carbohydrate count of a food. Grams of sugar can come from added sweeteners, fruit, fruit juice, dairy, and carbohydrate foods like beans and grains. It’s best to choose items with very low sugar values (ideally under 5 grams of sugar per serving), but the value on the nutrition label sometimes doesn’t tell the whole story. For example, a fruit-heavy product will likely have a higher sugar value even if there is no added sweetener. Some companies are tricky in that they reduce the serving size of an item so that it appears to contain zero grams of sugar. If a food contains less than 0.5 grams of sugar per serving, it can be listed as containing 0 grams of sugar. Pay attention to the serving size to see if it’s realistic for you to follow. For example, if there are 4 servings per container, but you plan to eat the whole bag, it’s possible you’re eating up to 2 grams of sugar. The best way to understand sugars is to know how to recognize them in the ingredients. There are TONS of names for sugar, and other than looking for anything ending in -ose, here are some names of added sweeteners:
agave nectar – barbados sugar – barley malt – beet sugar – blackstrap molasses – brown rice syrup – brown sugar – buttered syrup – cane juice crystals – cane sugar – caramel – carob syrup – castor sugar – confectioner’s sugar – corn syrup – corn syrup solids – crystalline fructose
date sugar – demerara sugar – dextran – dextrose – diastatic malt – diatase – ethyl maltol – evaporated cane juice – florida crystals – fructose – fruit juice – fruit juice concentrate – galactose – glucose – glucose solids – golden sugar – golden syrup – grape sugar
high fructose corn syrup – honey – icing sugar – invert sugar – lactose – malt syrup – maltose – maple syrup – molasses – muscovado sugar – organic raw sugar – panocha – raw sugar – refiner’s syrup – rice syrup – sorghum syrup – sucrose – sugar – treacle – turbinado sugar – yellow sugar
I’m actually a fan of salt, but too much sodium can certainly be a problem because it can impair kidney function, lead to high blood pressure, and increase risk of osteoporosis and stomach cancer. The majority of our sodium intake comes from packaged foods, rather than from food we make ourselves at home because salt acts as a preservative, making packaged foods more shelf-stable. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration recommends that individuals consume no more than 2,300 mg of sodium per day, and that certain groups limit their intake to 1,500 mg per day. At these values, it’s wise to aim for less than 500 mg of sodium at each meal. When you analyze the sodium content of your food item, be sure to consider the sodium content of your entire meal or snack – it may need to contain less than 500 mg in order to keep you under the recommended limit.
Fats are an important part of a balanced diet, so it’s not necessarily beneficial to look for foods with low fat content. The trick here is to pay attention to the types of fats the food contains. Aim to avoid trans fats completely. You’ll see these listed in the ingredients as hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated vegetable oils. The nutrition facts section calls out trans fats as well – how helpful! But again, food companies can be sneaky. The FDA allows companies to list 0 grams on the label even if it contains up to 0.5 grams of trans fat per serving. Like in the sugar example, if you plan to eat 4 servings of an item, you could be consuming up to 2 grams of trans fat, which has been found harmful even at low levels. The FDA is working to remove trans fats from the food supply completely, but until that happens, be aware that cookies and crackers are the most likely to still contain oils with trans fats. Fat is important for satiety, brain health, nutrient absorption, and so many other things! If your food contains less than 3 grams of fat, it’s considered a low-fat food and it would be wise to add some nourishing fats to your meal or snack like avocado, nuts, seeds, coconut, oils, or whole dairy.
A balanced diet contains some protein, which can help curb sugar cravings and fuel your brain on a busy workday. If you’re looking to balance each meal and snack, aim for about 7-14 grams of protein per snack and 21-28 grams of protein per meal. If your food item doesn’t contain enough protein, it doesn’t necessarily mean you should skip it – it just means that you might want to add something to it to make a complete meal or snack.
As I mentioned in some of the points above, it’s important to note the recommended serving size as you’re analyzing each part of the nutrition label. Compare the serving size to your intended portion size to calculate the actual amount of nutrients you will consume. It’s not necessary to limit yourself to the serving size listed unless the multiplied nutrient amounts will put you over your desired intake.
As I’m sure you noticed, there’s a lot I left out of my analysis, i.e. calories, cholesterol, vitamins, etc. These facts can provide good information, but they’re not the first things I look at when analyzing a product. Ultimately, my goal is to help you discern a nutritious food on your own – so let me know in the comments what additional questions you have about nutrition labels and ingredients for me to address in another post!