I recently began reading food labels more closely than simply calorie numbers and the list of ingredients. Those labels have so many claims on the front and so many numbers on the back, it can get confusing! Here is a quick and easy way to read a food label:
- Ignore all the claims of “natural” and “99% fat free” on the front of any food product. In fact, ignore everything on that side and turn the package around to the nutrition facts label.
- Check the serving size. You’d be amazed how small they divide up the contents of jars and boxes so the numbers look healthier. Measure out how much ½ cup of cereal is and you will see what I mean!
- Check the calories. These are calories per serving, so make sure you figure out how much a serving size is before you start eating or drinking.
- Figure out the fat. Here’s where it gets trickier. That 99% fat free is calculated by weight. This lowers the percentage of fat calories by weight in any given food. So cow’s milk can be sold as 1% fat (as measured by weight, because of the added water), when it actually is 22% fat by calories and 2% fat milk is 43% fat by calories! Companies began adding water and sugar to products when the low fat craze began, so it seemed as if fat had been removed from a food since there was a lower percentage of it. Those low fat crackers don’t have less fat in them, they just have more high fructose corn syrup. Figure out the percentage of fat by calories by comparing “calories from fat” with total calories (those stats are side by side on labels). If a serving size has 150 calories and the calories from fat are 50, then the product is 33% fat.
- How much salt? FDA guidelines recommend no more than 1500 mg of salt a day, with an upper limit of 2300 mg. If you want to follow FDA guidelines, here’s a fast calculation to figure out if a packaged food passes muster. If you eat about 2300 calories a day, then the grams of salt in a serving should never be higher than the number of calories per serving. If the salt content number equals the calorie content number in everything you eat, and you eat about 2300 calories a day, you would be getting 2300 mg of salt a day, the upper limit of salt recommended by the FDA. I want to eat way less than the FDA upper limit, and I eat about 2000 calories per day, so I want my salt grams to be at most half what the calorie number is.
Sugar – If your brain is tired from all this math, go to the ingredients list and avoid foods with added sweeteners, at least in the first three to five ingredients. The lower down the label you find sugars, the better! There are at least 61 different names for sugar, so be vigilant! Also, the fewer the ingredients, the better, because that food is likely to be less processed. If you can’t pronounce an ingredient it’s probably best not to eat it.
And the healthiest foods are those that come without a label at all: fresh fruits and vegetables!