The Secrets in Your Nutrition Label...
7 min read
I couldn’t believe it. The all natural cereal from the health section had more added sugar and less vitamins than the fruit loops!
Have you ever been looking at an item and wonder if it is “healthy”? Is it a good source of protein, fats, carbs or how it can impact your health?
Today I want to help you look at food labels the way that I do so that you can determine if it is healthy for you and if it is worth the added costs.
Soapbox moment: Something that ruffles my feathers about shopping in the United States is that foods that are considered “healthy” for you tend to be higher in cost. No added sugar sauces and dressings cost more than their added sugar counterparts. Highly processed breads and cereals are priced higher than their whole food brothers. Heck apples cost more than Oreos!
As my wife says, “it is what it is''. So let's just deal with it and move on.
While the front packaging of a food item can be very misleading with their claims, the food labels on the back of the product are usually tightly regulated. Let’s take a look at each part of the food label to get a greater understanding of what we are actually getting, how it is being used in our bodies and where the food companies are trying to trick you!
For our examples today we are looking at Jif Creamy Peanut Butter and Justin’s Vanilla Almond Butter. For anyone unfamiliar with these products, Jif is your classic peanut butter, made for mass distribution and consumption. Justin’s Almond butter is a higher end product that touts using “the best products they can get their hands on” and flying the Non GMO, Gluten Free, Orangutan Friendly and Kosher certifications.
I only chose these products for two reasons.
1) Nut butters usually contain carbs, fats, and proteins.
2) The nutritional uses for these two food products are very similar.
So let’s start from the top and work our way down.
Servings and Calories-
This section is pretty straightforward. The servings per container is how many portions you will get if you follow the recommended serving size below. Calories are a measurement of energy. When it comes to our health and fitness, our bodies need calories for everything we do, all the way from growing your hair to running the stairs. Too many calories, we will store them. Too few calories, we will sacrifice energy and metabolic functions.
Where lots of companies get tricky is how they will change the serving size to fit within a specific calorie window.
Nut butters are a perfect highlight of this. When most people are using a nut butter for a snack, sandwich or toast are using much more than 2 TBSP. Another great example is chips or packaged cookies. Usually they will show you about 150 calories per serving… but who is eating just 1 oz of chips or 2 cookies? Most companies with calorie dense foods will intentionally change their serving size to keep the calories under 250, because most people will start to second guess a 300 calorie cookie investment.
% Daily Value-
Before going down the list let’s chat about the “% Daily Value” category. According to “General Nutrition Advice” this is the percentage of the daily intake of the nutrient for someone who has a 2,000 calorie diet. If you are not “General” or do not have a 2,000 calorie daily diet, be cautious about letting these numbers guide your decisions. For example- For Jif, if you fit the above description 4 servings (8 tablespoons) would give you a full day's worth of fat. If you track your macros or servings, the grams of nutrients will guide you better to proper nutrition.
Fats and Sodium-
Let me give a shout out to fat and sodium real quick! Healthy dietary fat provides our bodies with huge benefits. They are super energy dense, help to balance hormones, form cell membranes, brains and nervous systems, and it transports vitamins A,D,E and K around our body. Sodium is an essential mineral that helps to absorb protein, carbs and water, it helps to regulate blood pressure and plays a role in nerve impulses, cardiac function and muscle contraction (yes one of those electrolytes in your sports drinks).
These guys can get a bad wrap because excessive use has been linked to many heart and blood problems. If you are not over using fats and sodium and you still have heart and blood pressure issues, other lifestyle or genetic factors may be to blame. Make sure to see a doctor and a registered dietician if you are making changes in your diet to recover from disease or illness.
“Total Fat” is the sum of all the fats contained in the food. It contains 9 calories for every gram. Under the total Fat breakdown we see the separation of Saturated fat and Trans Fat.
Saturated Fats are fats that have more hydrogen attached to each carbon on the fatty acid chain. They are commonly found in animal products, soy, and nuts. There is still a section of health professionals that believe saturated fat is bad in your diet. This idea became popular in the late 70’s when researchers noticed higher cases of heart disease in the US (where saturated fat intake is higher) and lower cases in countries with lower consumption, like Italy, Greece and Spain. We do know that correlation does not equal causation.
There are also sections of health professionals that feel some saturated fat in your diet is really healthy for you. Most fat sources are going to have some combination of saturated and unsaturated fats. Just like in almost everything health and fitness: Saturated fats can be “bad” for some people, while it doesn’t affect others. Excessive use is most likely bad for anyone.
Trans Fats is where we can all agree needs to be limited in your diet. Commonly used to extend shelf life for packaged foods, a trans fat is created when an unsaturated fat goes through chemical hydrogenation. Products like vegetable shortening, margarine, cooking oils and food products made with those usually contain trans fats. Due to their links to many health issues, they are being phased out of our food system, but they still exist. Even if a food label has “0g” listed it can still contain less than 0.5 grams per serving. Avoid any product that lists “partially hydrogenated fat” in the ingredients.
Cholesterol is a fatty acid that doesn’t mix well with blood. Our body naturally produces it from our liver and it’s production usually decreases when we eat cholesterol rich foods and increases when our diet is low in cholesterol. It is necessary to produce vitamin D, steroid hormones and bile acids. This is another one where the health “risks” and benefits are contested in the doctor's office. Limiting dietary cholesterol has been shown to have a minimal effect on your blood cholesterol levels. A better (natural) way to control your cholesterol is to stay lean, exercise and eat a variety of healthy fibrous foods.
Sodium- As stated above, we need sodium… just not as much as we get in a typical Western diet. The average American consumes about 3,400mg of sodium a day. If you are in a high risk category you should get less than 1,500 mg a day. You can survive off of 500 mg per day. High sodium foods are usually microwave and canned foods, processed snacks, meats and dairy as well as restaurant foods.
Carbohydrates and Protein-
Carbohydrates - Once we digest any carbohydrate it is converted into monosaccharides (Sugar). Then they are released into your liver for storage, any extra is released into your bloodstream and other cells in the body to be used or stored. They contain 4 calories for every gram. The FDA is now requiring carbs to be reported with 3 additional categories. Understanding this section can bring some light to claims made on the front of the package. “Total Carbohydrates” are the total of all the carbs contained in the food.
Dietary Fiber - The right amount of dietary fiber in your diet is amazing for your digestive system and can even help to lower your cholesterol! Since it is not easily digested it adds bulk to your stool (poop) and acts like a cleaning crew as it passes along your digestive tract. Not only that, but the bacteria in our digestive system also love to feed off of fiber! Food producers can get tricky with “Dietary Fiber”! Since dietary fiber is not easily digested, some companies will use this to give you a “low carb” food. There are still some experts that recommend counting your total carbohydrates in your daily calorie needs, not your total carbohydrates minus dietary fiber. I say it is the player's choice!
Sugar and Added Sugar - You can see in the outdated photo of the Jif, “added sugars” are not on the label. That’s because this is a new FDA requirement. Now you can see how many sugars are naturally occurring and how many have been added in the manufacturing process!
Protein - Protein provides us with the building blocks we need to repair your body that is constantly breaking down. They are typically slow digesting and help to keep you full. Just like carbohydrates, protein contains 4 calories for every gram. While these nut butters have protein in them, the higher fat content makes this mainly a source of fat rather than a protein source, even if there is a label on the front telling you it is a good source of protein!
The only vitamins and minerals required by the FDA to be listed are Vitamin D, Iron, Calcium and Potassium. While some companies decide to label things their food might be high in, just because it is not on the label, doesn’t mean it doesn’t contain it. In fact almonds are a great source of Manganese and Magnesium, but this company decided to not put it on their label. If you are looking for what micronutrients your food is rich in, you may have to ask google!
Let’s go over a few reasons this is important, and a few reasons why the fitness gurus are wrong.
This list is important if you are trying to avoid a food group. I am allergic to tree nuts, so I have to scan the ingredient list of most packaged foods to check for anything with a tree nut. This is a great example of why the question of “Is this healthy?” is much more nuanced. While almond butter for most people may be a healthier, more nutrient dense source, it could potentially kill me.
This is also where you can check to see if your food contains any trans fat. If you remember from above, if the food contains less than 0.5g per serving, it is not required to put it on the label. Here is where you can find out if the item contains partially hydrogenated oils. Bonus tip- fully hydrogenated fats are not considered to be a trans fat risk!
Why food labels can get a bad wrap:
I admit, I was wrong.
Early in my training life, I would have looked at this ingredient list and told you to run as fast as you can!
Look at all those ingredients! What is PALMITOLEIC ACID AND METHYLBUTYRATE? I was under the “If it has more than a few items in the ingredient list or you can’t read it, it shouldn’t be in your body” camp.
Well it turns out this is the chemical breakdown of a natural blue berry.
So if we had the same labeling requirements for natural foods as we did as something made in a lab or factory we would see ingredient lists like this every day… and according to the gurus, you couldn’t eat anything!
As I said above, if you are trying to avoid specific food items or additives, for your specific needs, the ingredient list is a great place to spot them, but don’t get scared of words you don’t know or long ingredient lists.
So as you can see, having a good understanding of what is important to look for, and what you can skip over, can help you choose exactly what is “healthy” and “not healthy” for you and your family. It can also help to influence your purchasing decisions. My ah ha moment came when I was looking for a “healthier” kids cereal. We occasionally will get the colorful box cereal that is usually higher in sugar. One day I was on a quest to get the healthiest version I could find. It turned out that the “healthy” brand that was $2 more had most of the same ingredients, more sugar and less fiber and added vitamins than the national brand. So at the end of the day you have to make the call on if the $2 is worth it.
There you have it! If you would have told me I could write 2000 words about food labels I would have told you that you were crazy. But as I was going along, I wanted to include important information that influences my decisions at the grocery store in hopes that I can help you make the best decisions for you and your family.
Make sure to subscribe to our mailing list, so you can get updates on our next blog - how to supercharge your metabolism! We will talk about how you can boost your metabolism by 40-60 percent not only through exercise and daily activity, but by using these food labels to optimize your nutrition!