If you’re currently not reading the nutrition label on every food item you purchase at the grocery store, then you might fit into one of two categories:
- You buy only fresh produce
- You buy the typical items at the grocery store that come in boxes, bags, and cans but rarely look at the nutritional label (maybe sometimes to check the calorie count).
The first category is a great but rare one to occupy. Those foods don’t have a nutrition label because they are REAL (i.e. from the ground) and you can eat them all you want knowing you’re in good hands. The second category is where a majority of us fall and need to pay attention ESPECIALLY if you have just been diagnosed with pre-diabetes or type 2 diabetes.
Foods that come in packages come with a warning lab…um, I mean, a “nutrition” label that gives a small indication of what’s been added to the food. It is critical to look at EVERY nutrition label for each food and drink item you purchase at the grocery store because there are likely added ingredients that you may not be aware of, mainly added sugars.
Navigating the Label
I’ve talked about why excess sugar consumption is problematic here and my previous post discusses how to discern quality amongst a category of food items (e.g. mixed nuts, yogurts.) While I did talk about nutrition labels then, I want to focus on them a little bit more since they are so important.
I will admit that learning how to read a label isn’t intuitive at first, and it takes a lot of energy to look at multiple products to make sure you find the quality one. Like anything new, it’s painful at first but becomes easier the more you do it.
Let’s look at a very common and versatile food product as an example: peanut butter.
When you look at the label, start with the serving size first. This tells you that all the quantities listed below apply to the serving size listed. The serving size is supposed to be a common quantity consumed in one meal. Thus, we can see that 2 tablespoons of peanut butter is the serving size and that there are 190 calories in that serving. You’ll also note that there are about 13 total servings in the container. So, if you ate the entire container in one sitting, you would consume 13 x 190 = 1170 calories total.
Going down the left side you’ll see the major nutritional components that are required to be listed on ALL food labels. Major vitamins and minerals are listed on the bottom, but the list is by no means comprehensive.
On the right hand side of the label you’ll see the “% daily value” listed. Using total fat as an example, this means that in two tablespoons of this particular peanut butter you can expect to meet 21% of the daily recommended amount of fat. This is based on a 2,000 calorie per day diet which is what the asterisk alludes to on the very bottom. Not everyone needs 2,000 calories per day, so this is simply a ballpark estimate. Honestly, I don’t focus too much on this column though you might if you’re really trying to calorie crunch.
Finally, do a quick check on the ingredient list to check for additives or other things that shouldn’t be there. In general, the short list of ingredients the better. This one only has four but peanut butter definitely doesn’t need sugar added to it.
Brief Blurb on Carbohydrates
Given the previous concerns I’ve outlined for specific carbohydrates, you’ll want to pay special attention to this part of the label.
“Total carbohydrates” is listed with “dietary fiber” and “total sugars” below it. That’s because fiber and sugar are both carbohydrates. Moreover, the label is now required to include the sugars that are added. While this peanut butter is branded with “Natural” in its name, there is nothing natural about the 3 grams of added sugar to each serving size. Remember, in my previous post I outlined how easy it is to overdo it on sugar consumption and all of these hidden sugars add up very quickly.
So as not to pick on Skippy, I would recommend their new “No sugar added” product. It doesn’t have any sugar added and it only has 3 ingredients listed. To get more selective, the palm oil doesn’t need to be in there either, and its health benefits are unclear. You may astutely notice that this type of Skippy has less sugar BUT has more calories per serving (210 vs 190 in the above example. That’s because this Skippy has 2 more grams of fat per serving. Again, get rid of the palm oil and the calories even out.
All you need to make peanut butter is peanuts and a little bit of salt. That’s why I buy Adam’s peanut butter. It’s simple with no added sugar, it’s not expensive, and you can get it easily at Wal-mart! I have no conflicts of interest with Adam’s 😉
Every Label, Every Time
Here are the key points to reading a nutrition label:
- Read what the serving size is
- Note the number of calories in the serving size
- Note the nutrients and minerals in grams for the serving size with special attention on sugars and added sugars
- Look at ingredient list and note if it is lengthy (i.e. a paragraph) or a few ingredients
- Recognize sugars in the ingredient list (e.g. fructose, sucrose, syrup, etc.)
Remember, nutrition labels can be thought of as warning labels. Make it a habit to check EVERY food item that comes in any package. You might be surprised by what you find. If you buy fresh produce, then there is no need to worry about a label! Eating more real food will save you all this trouble.
Until next time my friends!
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