By reading and understanding food labels, you will become more aware of what’s in the food you eat. That helps you make healthy food choices and control your diet better for weight management.
Recent findings from a study by the University of Tennessee Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics, in conjunction with researchers at the University of Santiago de Compostela in Spain, the University of Arkansas, and the Norwegian Institute for Agricultural Finance Research, have found that shoppers, particularly women who take the time to read food labels tend to be thinner than those who don’t.
In addition, these women have also been shown to weigh up to 9 pounds less than women who don’t read food labels. Therefore, to help you understand food labels, I have chosen an oatmeal food label as an example, and the following information will help explain how to read a food label.
1. Serving size. Food labels list serving sizes so you can tell how much of a product counts as one serving, plus how many servings are in the whole package. In this example, it’s listed as ½ cup as one serving or 13 servings per container.
1a. Calories are the energy found in a serving of food. If you’re looking to lose weight, you would be looking for food with fewer calories per serving, but it works the other way. If you need to gain weight, look for foods with more calories per serving. Always remember the number of servings you consume determines the number of calories you eat (your portion amount).
2. Percent of the daily value. We all need to eat a healthy balanced diet; the food label will tell you if the product gives you essential nutrients your body needs. No single food will have all the nutrients at the levels you need. That is why you need a balance of Calories, Fats, Cholesterol, Carbohydrates, and Protein in our diet, plus vitamins and minerals to stay healthy. The percent of daily value figures will help you see how close you are to fulfilling your body’s needs. It’s worth noting that these percentages are listed for adults and are based on a 2000-calorie diet.
o Total Fat. That indicates the number of fat grams per serving. It’s important to include some fat in your diet, and this is where the food label will tell you the types of fat the product contains and how much of each type. Always look for unsaturated fats as the healthy option as saturated and trans-fats are not. However, to find out if the food is high or low in fat, look at the following guide:
o Sodium. We all need small amounts of sodium as it is crucial for maintaining the health of every cell in our body. Foods in their natural state have very little sodium. Fast foods and processed foods are highest in sodium. The recommended daily limit for salt intake for adults (made up of sodium and chloride) is 6g, so reading in sodium for many of us is meaningless. To keep an eye on salt levels in food purchased, remember that 1g of sodium equals 2.5g of salt. In other words, you need to multiply the sodium value by 2.5g to get the equivalent salt value. Daily intake for adults should be no more than 6g salt a day.
o Total Carbohydrate. Food labels will tell you the total carbohydrates and how many are from sugar, dietary fiber, or other sources. It’s better to choose fiber-dense carbohydrates than sugars since simple sugars can often be high in calories. In addition, as a quick guide, HIGH is more than 15g sugars per 100g, and LOW is 5g sugars or less per 100g.
o Protein. Our bodies are mostly made up of protein from our muscles, skin to our immune system. Foods high in protein include fish, eggs, nuts, meat, cheese, and soybeans.
o Vitamin A and Vitamin B. These two vitamins are a crucial part of our diet. Vitamin A is good for eyesight and helps maintain the health of our skin; Good sources are cheese, eggs, oily fish, milk, yogurt. Daily requirements for women are 0.6mg and 0.7mg. Vitamin C helps protect cells, plus help the body to absorb iron and fight infections. Good sources of vitamin C are peppers, green vegetables, and a wide variety of fruits such as oranges, kiwi fruit. Adults need 40mg a day.
o Calcium. Calcium has several essential functions. For example, it helps build strong bones and teeth, regulates muscle contraction and heartbeat. Good sources include milk, cheese, green leafy veggies, and other dairy products. Adults need 700mg a day.
o Iron. Iron is an essential mineral used by our bodies to make red blood cells, which carry oxygen around the body. Sources of iron can come from liver, meat, beans, dried fruits, and most dark green leafy veggies. Daily requirement women need 14.8mg and men need 8.7mg.
3. Ingredients. At the bottom of the label, you should find the ingredients list with the ingredients listed in order of quantity. It’s worth comparing similar products to find the one with the least amount of saturated fat, trans-fat, and sodium (salt) and look out for higher fiber products.
Food Labels Fact From Fiction
While you have outlined how to read food labels, it’s fair to say that when you visit the supermarket, much of your food selection is from looking at food labels. However, food labels can be a little misleading to help you avoid being misled by food labels as you try to keep to a healthy diet here are a few pointers.
- Take a packet of crisps; you may read the crisps are 30% reduced-fat. That doesn’t make them healthy as they still contain 70% of fat and the same amount of calories as you’ll find in a packet of regular crisps.
- At the same time, don’t be fooled into thinking sweets, spreads, and other highly sweetened foodstuffs whose labels tell you they are fat-free are the healthy option. Yes, they are fat-free, but they are also full of sugar high in calories, which makes them unhealthy in their way.
- In addition, it doesn’t stop there. How often have you seen a strawberry-flavored drink, but is it actual strawberries? The taste is more likely to be artificial from a laboratory.
- Another type of label you are likely to see is a ‘light’ or ‘lite’ label implying the food is low-cal. It could simply mean that the food is light in texture.
- How many times have you read “organically grown, organic” on food labels? That can say very little about the nutritional value or safety of the product. Only trust food labels that say “certified organically grown.”
- The Food Standards Agency has set out recommendations to manufacturers on “fat-free claims” that “Low Fat” on food labels should only be used in foods that contain less than 3 grams of fat. Food labels that state “Fat Free” should only be used when foods contain less than 0.15 grams per 100 gram
- If you’re looking for “sugar free” or “no added sugar” products, beware of hidden sugars. Products using these terms could contain sugar alcohols, a derivative of sugar—yielding as many calories as table sugar 4 calories per gram.
These are just a few examples of how food manufacturers’ labels can be misleading. I don’t want to make things any more confusing than they already are and if you want to know more here is a great guide on how to decode food labels. Nevertheless, it’s important to get to grips with food labeling, so you know what you’re consuming to help maintain a healthy diet.
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