How to Read Food Labels

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Food labels can be rather confusing is you don’t know a few simple rules, but once you know what to look for, there is a lot of useful information to help you make wise shopping decisions.

General Guidelines

  • The ingredients list and the nutritional information are both important. – one without the other doesn’t provide the complete picture.
  • Ingredients are listed in order of the amount of the ingredient in the product. So, the first ingredient in the list is the most abundant in the product, while the last ingredient in the list has the least amount in the product.
  • The percentages listed next to fat, carbs and protein are the percentages of recommended daily intake, not the percentages of the nutrients in the product.
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Grouping Ingredients

Ingredients are often "grouped" together on ingredients lists to present the items in a specific way. Since ingredients are listed in descending order of quantity, the ingredient that occurs the most in the product should be listed first. Therefore, a product label might read:

Special Protein Blend (cellulose, whey protein, soy protein), maltodextrin

This may seem pretty good. It lists protein high up in the list, and no sugar.

But, its not that simple. What is that "special protein blend" anyway? Let’s say the "blend" has 5 grams of whey protein, 5 grams of soy protein, and 11 grams of cellulose. Then there are also 12 grams of maltodextrin. Since the "blend" has a total of 21 grams (5 + 5 + 11 = 21), it can be listed before maltodextrin which is 12 grams. But, if the ingredients were actually listed in descending order of quantity, the list would read: "maltodextrin, cellulose, whey, soy" with the proteins being last on the list.

Maltodextrin is actually a form of sugar that can be listed without using the word "sugar". Cellulose is basically a filler. So, by grouping ingredients, protein can actually be listed first even though there is more sugar and filler than protein in the product.

Special Statements

Sometimes labels contain special statements that can be misleading if you don’t know the definitions of the statements and exactly what they mean.

When a label states, "Not a significant source of calories from fat," it must have less than 0.5 grams of fat per serving.

"Not a significant source of sugar" means that the sugar count on the label is less than one gram.

Here are the definitions for some other special statements:

  • Fat Free or No Fat – Contains less than a 1/2 gram of fat per serving.
  • Reduced Fat or Lower Fat – Contains less fat than the original version.
  • Low Fat – Contains less than 3 grams of fat per serving.
  • Lite – Contains 1/3 the calories or 1/2 the fat per serving of the original version.
  • Low Calorie – Contains 1/3 the calories of the original version or a similar product.
  • No Calorie or Calorie Free – Contains less than 5 calories per serving.
  • Sugar Free – Contains less than 1/2 gram of sugar per serving.
  • No Preservatives – Contains no preservatives (chemical or natural).
  • No Preservatives Added – Contains no added chemicals to preserve the product. But products may contain natural preservatives.
  • Low Sodium – Contains less than 140 milligrams of sodium per serving.
  • No Salt or Salt Free – Contains less than 5 milligrams of sodium per serving.
  • Baked Not Fried – Used mostly for potato chips, crackers or corn chips, this label means the product is usually sprayed with a light oil then baked in an oven instead of fried in the oil.

Sugars

There are many types of sugars with many different names, so it is important to know how to find them in an ingredient list. Here are some of the common names for sugars:

Cane juice, Fructose, Sorghum, Sucrose, Glucose, Honey, Sugar, Lactose , Maltose, Marshmallow, Malt, Maltodextrin, Molasses

Dairy

The following items on an ingredients list are dairy or dairy derivatives:

Cream, Cheese, Butter, Kefir, Casein, Lactose, Yogurt, Koumiss, Whey

Other Things to Look For

There are many things you can look for on a product label that will help you make wise choices when selecting food products. Here are a few that you should look out for:

  • Sugar – it should be low in the list, preferably towards the end.
  • Salt – it should also be toward the end of the list. Salt is not bad but should be used in moderation. Many processed foods are very high in salt.
  • Any ingredient that you can’t pronounce. They aren’t necessarily bad, you are probably better off without them being added to the product.
  • Excess vitamins and minerals. You should get these from whole foods rather than as an additive.
  • Anything Enriched. This usually means the food was stripped of its vital nutrients during processing, and then artificial nutrients were added back in to replace them.
  • Fortified. This is about the same as Enriched. Natural nutrients are removed during processing and replaced with artificial ones.
  • Foods where less than 10% of the carbohydrates are in the form of fiber. (For example, if the product has 20 grams of carbohydrates, there should be at least 2 grams of fiber).
  • A product where the fat calories are more than half of the total calories (except for nuts, olive oil, etc. that naturally have a high unsaturated fat content).
  • Partially hydrogenated oils or Trans Fats anywhere in the ingredients list.

Conclusion

Learning about the foods you eat will help you tremendously in achieving and maintaining your fitness goals. Label reading can be a little tricky, but once you know what to look for, it’s not all that mysterious and can help you eat much healthier.

Ed Ferrell is a certified personal trainer and owner of Fitness Together in Temecula, CA. Fitness Together provides one-on-one personal training in private workout suites, and complete nutritional programs based on each client’s unique goals. If you are in the Temecula area, visit http://www.fttemecula.com to schedule a FREE personal training session and fitness assessment.


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