Nutrition Labels and Claims
Have you ever found yourself being split, not knowing which to choose, among the high fiber label and the low sodium sticker? You're not alone. Food advertising is a HUGE industry. It's basically you vs. a team of people with a million dollar marketing budget. Food labels are created to pull you in and influence your choices but what some foods claim isn't always useful nor accurate. Here's how to start fighting back and choosing the right foods for you.
1. Read the Ingredients First
If your food is processed (meaning it's been changed from the way it was found in nature), it's going to be in a package which will have a nutrition facts label and an ingredients list. The ingredient list is important because, during the processing of the food, there is a chance that food had nutrients added to it that aren't useful, like excessive sugar or fat, and there's a chance it's lost some healthful nutrients, like fiber or vitamins/minerals. To figure what was added or lost, start by finding the ingredients list. Ideally, this list is simple with easily recognized ingredients. Ingredients that you could easily pull out of your own kitchen or pick up from a regular store. If the list of ingredients is really long and has a lot of unrecognizable things, it is probably not the most useful choice.
Example - Common Big Brand of Tortillas
If you see a lot of unfamiliar ingredients, the list is 10+ ingredients long, or there's lots of parentheses, there's probably a better choice out there.
A Better Choice, Another Tortilla Brand
Simple ingredients that I recognize tell me this is a better option. Note: the organic ingredients don't matter here. Regular, GMO, etc. are all fine.
2. Check out the Nutrition Facts
The nutrition facts provide specific details about macronutrients (carbs, proteins, and fats) and other info about vitamins, minerals and fiber. This information can help confirm or clear up some of the claims on the front of the package or give you a better idea of the overall nutrition.
A generic nutrition facts panel is below with notes.
A serving size reflects how much is commonly eaten at one sitting. It can also give you info about how much a package has for meal planning. This product below provides 8 servings so I could use it for 8 meals if my servings are 2/3 cup each time. If I consume 1 and 1/3 cups per meal then I get 4 total servings out of this.
Calories are the amount of energy a food has in it. Everyone's calorie needs are different and even those needs change day by day! Energy is a good thing, I promise. Steer clear of 0 calorie foods/drinks.
Types of Fat
Total fat is ideally below 20%.
Aim for below 2 grams of saturated fat per serving. 0 grams is ideal.
Plant products have no cholesterol so this should be easy. If you are eating animal products, limit your total intake below 150 mg/day.
Aim for as high as possible! Greater than 3 grams per serving is excellent.
Aim for less than 5 grams of added sugar per serving, or less than 25 grams total per day. Natural sugars are of no concern.
Protein is a hot topic right now. Protein needs are highly personal so there is no standard recommendation on a label. Most people are getting enough protein with a well-rounded diet so I encourage you to focus on the other aspects first.
**Sodium should be considered for what the whole day looks like. Eating a high (greater than 20%) sodium meal when the rest of the day is low sodium is probably fine. Of course, be mindful with kidney disease or any blood pressure issues. Generally, you can do well with limiting sodium by making sure the amount per serving is less than the calories per serving. In this example, 160 is less than 230. **
3. Be Skeptical of Label Claims
Low <insert nutrient>: This is going to be product specific. For example, low carbohydrate means less than 6 grams of carb per 100 grams of food. Low sodium means less than 5%.
Reduced: This has 25% fewer calories or 25% less sodium, fat, cholesterol or sugar than the original version (so it could still be high if the beginning product was super high).
Functional Claims: Things like "calcium builds strong bones" or "Protects heart health" are functional claims. Most claims are not reviewed by the FDA and are often unproven. There are a few that the FDA has reviewed like the association of folate and preventing neural defects but it is better to learn the science independently of what a label claims.
High <insert nutrient>: it is common to see this for vitamins and minerals. This means is has 20% or more of the daily value in one serving. However, having high amounts of ascorbic acid (vitamin C) added to a product (like fruit snacks) so it can claim this is less ideal than just eating a food that naturally has vitamin C in it, like an orange.
Light/Lite: This means the product contains 1/3 fewer calories or fat than the original version. Sometimes it is just referring to color/taste and does not mean anything about the overall nutrition like with light brown sugar.
Healthy: A product is low in fat and saturated fat, has less than 60 mg cholesterol and less than 480 mg of sodium, and at least 10% of the daily needs for calcium, vitamin A, C, iron and fiber.
All Natural: Nothing artificial or synthetic was added to a product “that would not normally be expected to be in that food.” … interpretations vary wildly for what might be “expected” in a food and this statement is not regulated.
Non-GMO: This indicates the product is not from genetically modified organisms. Very basically, GMO products have been engineered to produce the kinds of crops we want. While we can do that in a lab today, it used to be done just by taking certain plants and planting them near each other so that pollinators shared the seeds, and thus shared the desired characteristics of the plant.
Organic: This refers to avoiding chemical fertilizers or pesticides in growing crops. It might also be applied to animals in the feed they were given.
Keto/Keto Friendly: This implies the product is high in fat and is 99% likely an ultra-processed foods. Steer clear of these.
Paleo: Foods that are labeled paleo do not have legumes, most dairy, simple sugar or vegetable oil in them.
Vegan/Vegetarian: This was produced without any animal products, including dairy, honey, eggs. Vegetarian may have eggs, honey or dairy but no meat or fish. This can still be an ultra-processed food; vegan & vegetarian labeling does not imply healthy.
Loud Label Examples
Are there any label claims I didn't cover? Post your questions below!