Chances are when you were younger, you didn’t learn about basic nutrition or health in school. Many of us left high school without the simplest knowledge of nutrition, so we must do our own research and digging in order to pass on this knowledge to our children. Where do you even start? A nutrition label can be incredibly thorough and can be intimidating. Many people find reading nutrition labels to be frustrating and confusing at times, so you are not alone. Here’s how you can deal with this problem.
Create a family food philosophy and keep it simple
Starting by having a family “food philosophy” is key, Think of something similar to a family motto. For example: In our family, our family food philosophy is:
We eat mainly foods that grow on trees, in the ground, and are animals or fish. Once in a while we have foods that are fun. No food is inherently bad, but whole foods make us feel our best, so we eat those mostly.
Once you have a food philosophy it can make reading nutrition labels far more simple. Now you have an idea what matters to you in terms of what ingredients to avoid and if calories and serving sizes are more important to you.
How to read a food label
Mary Lou Gavin, MD, medical editor at KidsHealth.org says “It can be intimidating – for all of us – to try and size up a food label as a whole, so you need to break it down.” Keeping the principles of reading a food label simple is the key.
The key things to note while reading a nutrition label are:
- Serving size and total calories. Many times we look directly at the calorie count of a food package and make a snap decision, however oftentimes serving size is overlooked. A food item like ice cream or cereal often has a lower serving size than might actually be typically consumed in one sitting. Being aware of the size of the serving can help you to make a more educated decision on whether that food item will be beneficial to your family’s health. It can also help you to regulate your intake of certain foods once you understand what one serving size looks like.
- Aim to limit certain ingredients. The fat debate over the last 60 years has led many to believe that fat is bad. However, thankfully the research has shown us that was false. That said, limiting saturated and trans fats is a good idea still, particularly trans fats, which are typically found in overly processed foods. Limiting the amount of added sugars is also a good idea. Under the total sugars portion of the label you would see an added sugars line. Many people over do it with sodium as well, so avoiding foods with higher sodium percentages is a good idea.
- Understanding Daily Values. In the food label you likely have seen the daily values in a percentage form. This indicates the percentage of that particular nutrient in one serving. If it says 5% or less, then there is a low amount of that nutrient in the serving. 20% or more is considered high. *Note this is all based on a 2,000 calorie diet. To find more about this, the FDA has a more comprehensive look at daily values.
- Ingredients to avoid. One of the most important parts of the nutrition label is actually the list of ingredients. The ingredient listed first in the list is the most prevalent in that food item. The ingredients are listed from highest amounts to lowest amounts. Here are the top 12 ingredients to avoid as much as possible:
- Monosodium glutamate (MSG)
- Artificial food dyes and coloring
- Sodium nitrate
- Guar gum (when in high amounts)
- High fructose corn syrup
- Artificial sweeteners
- Sodium benzoate
- Trans fat
- Xanthan gum
- Artificial flavoring
- Yeast extract
Overall, these are the main things to observe while reading a nutrition label, without going too much into detail.
However if you plan to or already do eat a “whole foods” based diet, you will likely be avoiding many foods that require an extensive nutrition label. One way is to stick to foods with an ingredients list of less than 5, and make sure you know what those ingredients are. Typically if you and your family are eating this way, knowing the detailed macro and micronutrient data will be less necessary, but rather just a great resource to know.