By Justinne Lou Go
WANT to start eating healthy but not quite sure how? Sometimes, the help we need is right under our noses. If there’s one essential skill many people are missing out on, it’s label reading. But, like a book, never judge food products by their labels. Get to the facts — nutrition facts, that is. And, don’t just stop there; make sure to scrutinize the ingredients list, too. Remember, manufacturers will do their best to trick you into buying their product, whether through misleading labels or hidden ingredients. For all you know, that low-fat, sugar-free bag of chips is a wolf dressed in sheep’s clothing.
Once you master this food label-skimming skill, you can be more confident with your grocery purchases. You are more assured that your pantry only has food that can help you with your healthy lifestyle, knowing that you’re getting the most out of your food choices (and money!) by being more aware of your goods on hand.
Another strategy in living a healthy lifestyle starts in your kitchen. Creating an environment that supports your healthy lifestyle begins in your kitchen, so you want to make sure you’re only stocking up on food that you need and food that is good for you; none of the junk that will only sabotage your health goals, which is often a result of not knowing how to read food labels. As you can see, food label reading and equipping your kitchen and pantry with the right stock of food seamlessly go together. Unless, of course, someone else sneaks junk into your pantry or fridge.
Start with the Serving Size
Don’t panic, reading food labels, particularly nutrition facts, is not rocket science. You can easily navigate through it from top to bottom, starting with the serving size. You want to make sure you know how many pieces of chips there are in one serving. Don’t let “100 Calories” fool you. The entire packaging might be more than one serving, so if you finish the whole pack, you might have just gobbled down 500 calories in the form of crackers.
Check the Calories
For the calorie-conscious (or not), calories matter because this tells you the nutrient density of the food you’re eating, specifically in terms of energy. Calories are the unit for energy provided by food in the body. You want to be careful that you’re not eating a full meal’s worth of calories in a small snack pack. Generally, you’d want to keep your snacks between 100-300 calories and full meals can range from 300-500 calories. Again, don’t forget to check the serving size.
I think this small yet seemingly complicated text is where people get lost and give up on reading food labels. Fear not, percentages are your friends, at least to help you easily evaluate nutrients in terms of how they fit into your recommended meal plan (determined by your Nutritionist-Dietitian).
“%DV” actually stands for “percentage of Daily Values” based on a standard of a 2,000-calorie diet plan. So, if your Nutritionist says you only need 1,500 calories per day, you’ll have to do some math when computing for your %DV. In that case, the %DV indicated on the packaging is definitely higher for your needs, which is good if you’re looking at fiber, vitamins and minerals. But, it also tells you to be more cautious with the values for saturated fat, sugar and sodium.
Also note that this represents the percentage of your particular nutrient needs for a whole day, not per meal. 5% DV is considered low whereas 20% DV is considered high. Obviously, you want to aim for high DVs of fiber, vitamins (A & C) and minerals (calcium and iron). And, you’d want to choose low DVs for sodium, saturated fat and sugar.
Sugars are naturally found in carbohydrates, yes, even fruits. The sugars you want to watch for are the added and artificial sugars which can possibly increase your appetite by failing to curb your hunger.
This nutrient is especially a red flag for people with hypertension (high blood pressure). But, even for generally healthy people, it is recommended to keep your sodium intake at 6,000 mg or less. To make things simpler, just choose products that contain 5% DV or less.
Fat is still an essential nutrient for the body but there are particular types of fat that we need to limit — trans fat and saturated fat, especially for people with existing conditions such as hypertension, cardiovascular diseases and diabetes. As a general rule, trans fats are to be totally avoided and saturated fat should be 7% or less of the total calories.
The general recommendation for daily fiber intake for adults is between 20-35 grams. This can be achieved by eating more of fruits, vegetables, and complex carbohydrates so, reading food labels can definitely help you quantify this just to be sure you’re achieving the recommendation. Fiber is important because this helps regularize bowel movement and manage weight by promoting weight loss from reduced appetite due to the satiety factor it provides.
Lastly, don’t forget to check the ingredients list. This is where you’ll find the unwanted hidden ingredients that you thought you were clear of after checking the Nutrition Facts. Not just yet!
Ingredients lists are formatted in such a way that the major ingredients come first on the list, so you definitely don’t want to find sugar (cane sugar, high fructose corn syrup, invert sugar, palm sugar) in the first five ingredients on the list.
Whenever you see “zero trans fat” on the label, whether in the front or the back, never take its word for it. Rather, take it as a signal to check the ingredients list for “partially hydrogenated or hydrogenated fats,” which are sources of trans fat.
For those aiming to increase their fiber intake, we know that whole wheat is the way to go but do not be deceived by “wheat flour” on ingredients lists. This is actually refined flour. Make sure the word “whole wheat” is there.
Although ideally, we should be avoiding packaged food as much as possible because these are processed items, we cannot deny that there will be inevitable circumstances wherein we will need to resort to packaged products in the market. Harnessing the skill of food label reading is definitely a survival skill everyone should acquire because it truly is a lifesaver. Eat smart, read your food!