There are many elements to nutrition that people find confusing: what to eat, why some foods are proclaimed amazing one day and detrimental the next, how to figure out the best dietary approach for our needs. But perhaps the most perplexing is how to decipher nutrition labels. That's why I want to spend some time today sharing my secrets to reading nutrition labels.
This is an area where registered dietitians and holistic nutritionists differ the most. A dietitian will get into the details of the nutrients, nutrient values, daily intakes, calories, grams of carbs, fats and proteins and the lot. I'd say if it has a label, skip it. It's easier that way! Allow me to explain by highlighting some of the major points of a nutrition label.
The Secret to Reading Nutrition Labels
This is the part of a label that people often read first. But here's the problem: this value will tell you how many calories are in a food, but it doesn't tell you much about the ingredients that contribute to those calories. It's not necessarily about how many calories are in a serving, but where those calories are coming from.
For example, an apple has about 44 calories, the same as a half cup of Froot Loops Cereal. Does this make them equal in nutritional value? (That's rhetorical in case you were giving it any thought). Another example is half of a Chocolate Pop Tart has 180 calories and a serving of oatmeal has 150. When we dig deeper, we'll notice that the calories in a bowl of oatmeal come from a healthy ratio of fats, proteins and carbs (mainly fibre) and 143 of the 180 calories in a Pop Tart come from starch and sugar.
At the end of the day, calories don't matter. So stop counting them.
Everyone has long been afraid of fat, but recent research has shown that most of the dogma we grew up on about fat being 'bad' is completely false. Fat is an incredibly dense nutrient that fuels every single cell of our bodies, nourishes our nervous system, helps us make hormones, supports the brain, balances blood sugar and lubricates our joints.
However, when we look at that high number of fat grams on a label we still tend to freak out. Designating a certain number as 'too much' fat is unhelpful, especially when we don't know where those fats are coming from. As with calories, there are good sources of fat and toxic sources of fat. Coconut oil, coconut milk, ghee, tallow, lard, avocado, nuts and seeds are all amazing examples of nourishing fats, while rancid, highly processed and genetically modified oils such as canola, rapeseed, vegetable, safflower, corn and cottonseed are detrimental to our health.
Simply looking at the total number of fat grams, or even the amount of saturated fat (which is also good for us!), doesn't give us the whole picture. And if we make decisions based on that number, we might be missing out on an excellent source of nutritious fats.
vitamins and minerals
Most labels will include some mention of vitamins and minerals such as sodium, potassium, calcium, iron, Vitamin C, Vitamin A and more.
What a label won't tell you is the quality of those vitamins and minerals. Many processed foods are fortified with vitamins and minerals that are different than the forms you'd find in whole foods, and aren't as easy for us to digest, absorb and use. This means you may not be actually receiving the benefit from the vitamins and minerals listed on the labels. Another thing to keep in mind is the 'daily recommended intakes' are often far lower than what we truly need, especially if we are dealing with a specific health condition.
The Most Important Part of a Nutrition Label
My most important advice about reading nutrition labels is to ignore the 'Nutrition Facts' panel. All you need to know about a food is in the ingredient list. Turn the package over and find that ingredient list on the side or the back. Are there real foods on there, or is there a cornucopia of ingredients you can't pronounce? What you see in the ingredient list is the most important thing to use to inform your buying decision.
And, even better yet, don't buy things with labels at all! Imagine a magical land where you can eat what you want. You don't have to put on your reading glasses to go grocery shopping. You don't need a kitchen scale and calculator to figure out what to eat. You don't need to log calories or have a degree in food science to cook a balanced meal. Imagine a world where you sit down to a meal and actually enjoy the food for its flavours and inherent health benefits. This is a world where our food doesn't have a shelf life that extends into the next millenium and is free of government mandated 'enrichment', the supplementation of our food with synthetic versions of nutrients that occur naturally in real, whole food.
This magical land, my dear eaters, is right there, ready and waiting for us to bite in. This land exists at farmer's markets and produce aisles the world over. This is the magical land of whole, natural, unprocessed foods. Broccoli doesn't have a health label when you buy it. It doesn't have an ingredient list and it doesn't carry any health claims, as it doesn't have a package to write them on. You don't need a health label for a bowl of oatmeal or an apple.
The more we focus on foods that don't have labels, the less we'll care about reading nutrition labels and the numbers listed on there.