Howdy! I hope you’re having a nice evening. I am just relaxing at home with the H and our dogs.
When I decided to start a nutrition blog, I knew I wanted one of my first posts to be about what to look for on a nutrition label. People *always* ask me whether specific food products are healthy and I always direct them to the product packaging and nutrition label.
This diagram from the American Heart Association’s website gives you a pretty good overview of how to generally read a nutrition label:
So what specific thing should you really zero in on? I find that I look at different things depending on what type of food product I’m looking at. Also, what someone focuses on in a nutrition label is specific to his or her overall diet, nutrition goals and medical conditions. Someone that has diabetes will probably pay close attention to carbohydrates whereas someone with high blood pressure may care more about sodium. An athlete looking for a post work-out snack will probably look specifically at protein and someone trying to eat more naturally may go straight for the ingredient list.
Below are some examples of things I specifically look for when I’m checking out specific food products…
When I’m looking at different meats, I pay close attention to fats, cholesterol and protein. The less cholesterol and saturated fat, the better. I try to avoid trans fats.
Here is what I would compare when looking at ground beef and ground turkey:
As you can see, the ground beef actually has less calories, fat, saturated fat and cholesterol than the ground turkey. There are 8g total fat and 3g saturated (bad) fat in the ground beef, compared to the 17g total fat and 5 g saturated fat in the ground turkey. This may seem confusing because we always hear that turkey is healthier than beef.
Just like beef, ground turkey comes in different fat contents. The beef pictured above is lean 93/7 (meaning 93% beef, 7% fat). The ground turkey pictured above is 70/30. Manufacturers sometimes mix skin and dark meat in with turkey, which increases the fat content. This is why it is so important to read the nutrition label. When I went to the store to find ground turkey for this post, the grocery store didn’t even carry a lean ground turkey.
Picking out grain products can be kind of confusing. There are so many nutrition claims on the front of the box (“made with whole grains!”) that it can be easy to pick a not-so-great product. I always look for 100% whole wheat or whole grain products. I specifically look at the amount of fiber per serving and the ingredient label for the best choice. Here’s a comparison of honey wheat and whole grain bread:
Here’s a comparison of the main differences I notice between the two products:
|Honey Wheat Bread||100% Whole Grain Bread|
|Serving Size||1 slice||1 slice|
|Fiber per slice||< 1 g||2 g|
|Protein per slice||2 g||4 g|
|First ingredient||Enriched wheat flour||Whole wheat flour|
You can see that the 100% whole grain bread has double the protein and more than double the fiber as the honey wheat bread.
Remember that labels list ingredients in the order of greatest to least, so the first few ingredients are going to tell you a lot about that product. Skip products that list an enriched grain as the first ingredient.
0-Calorie Sparkling Flavored Water
You can see that the nutrition facts are pretty uneventful here. No calories, fat, sugar or sodium. So in this case, I would check out the ingredient list. The Trader Joe’s sparkling water is made from spring water and natural flavors. The Clear American water has quite a few additional ingredients, including aspartame, citric acid, potassium citrate, potassium benzoate, etc. A good rule of thumb is to avoid ingredients that you can’t pronounce. I’d pick the TJ’s water here.
Here is a comparison of almond milk and (skim) cow’s milk:
I notice a few things about these products. The cow’s milk is a tad bit higher in calories but has less fat (although the fat in the almond milk is healthy fat). The cow’s milk is higher in protein but the almond milk has more calcium. So which product is better?
I don’t think there’s really a right answer on this one…. It’s all relative to your diet. I personally drink cow’s milk because it has more protein and I get lots of healthy fats and calcium in my diet from other sources.
If I’m looking at a random processed product then I really just look at the label as a whole. People ask me all.the.time. about Nutella, often asking if it is nutritionally equivalent to peanut butter. Let’s take a look at that:
Remember that ingredients are listed in order of greatest to least. When I looked at this label, my attention went straight to the ingredient list… the first ingredient is sugar. If I’m going to use a hazelnut spread then I want the first ingredient to be made of hazelnuts. Tasty treat? Yes :) Nutritionally equivalent to peanut butter? No.
Some things to keep in mind:
- If you are comparing two products, always look at the serving size of each item first. You want to make sure you are comparing the same amounts.
- Don’t let the marketing on the front of the package persuade you to select a product without checking out the nutrition label first. I personally don’t care that a fruit drink is “Made with Vitamin C!” if the first ingredient is high fructose corn syrup, you know?
- Low-fat does not automatically mean a product is healthier. Products can be low in fat but high in something else. Also, if fat is removed from a product then something else is probably added in its place, like sugar or funky ingredients.
- Strive for balance. If a product that you love is a little higher in something- fat, sugar, sodium, whatever- then choose it sparingly and balance it out with healthier items.
- Check out the Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2010 for specific nutrient recommendations.
Well, I hope you’ve found this post to be helpful. Have a great evening!