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How to Read Nutrition Labels - The Basics

Updated: Aug 4, 2021

It’s no secret that reading food labels can be a daunting task. From the difficult-to-decipher ingredients list to the teeny tiny printing, it’s pretty evident ( to us anyway) that there is a certain level of dishonesty happening in the food industry. Any one of the 3,000 or more food additives added to our food supply could easily negatively impact our health, but what is worse is that they have never been tested synergistically, which just means that we have no idea what all these chemicals together are doing to impact our environment, health and really our lives.

For these reasons and more we recommend that people stick to whole foods as much as possible, however, we understand that it just isn’t always possible to do that and for these reasons, we have put together this blog post which will share with you some basic information on the how to’s of nutrition label reading.

First things first, a nutrition label is made up of 3 parts: the nutrition facts, the ingredients list, and the ever misleading health claims (usually found on the front of the package)

We are going to start off by diving into the Nutrition Facts portion of the nutrition label:

Nutrition Facts

The nutrition facts portion of the nutrition label contains information about the serving size, calorie content, fat content, Cholesterol, Sodium, Carbohydrates, Protein and other nutrients. This portion can actually be quite useful if you know how to use it. First, make sure to pay close attention to the serving size, food manufacturers can sometimes limit the serving size so that the calorie and fat content will seem smaller. This may be an unrealistic amount and therefore you may need to double or even triple the nutrition facts for the serving size you are actually eating. Second, you want to try and avoid foods with high percentages of sodium, cholesterol, trans fats (avoid this one altogether if possible) and saturated fats (allowing 10% or 15 % of the average daily food intake.) Finally be aware that the requirements for nutrients, specifically vitamins and minerals, are unique to your body and the optimum level of these nutrients are often higher than the minimum requirement to prevent deficiency.

*Note* Remember how we were talking about that dishonesty happening in our food industry well here is a prime example. If a label says that a portion of food contains 0g of trans fats it could contain up to 0.5g per serving. Yep, that’s right! Food manufacturers can omit this from the list if it contains less than 0.5g per serving. Keep this in mind and watch the ingredients list section for more information on trans fats.

Ingredients List

Now we will take a look at the ingredients list. Ingredients are listed here in descending order by quantity. It is also important to note that spices and seasonings may be shown in any order. When it comes to reading the ingredients list it may seem like you may need to carry around a dictionary just to understand what is in your food, but if you can’t pronounce or don’t know what a food ingredient is it is likely that it is a food additive. In fact, as we mentioned before there are over 3,000 food additives in our food supply. As you can imagine we want to stay away from most of these. While we can’t get into all 3,000 plus we do want to share with you some of the most dangerous to your health. Here we go:

“Hydrogenated, partially hydrogenated, mono & diglycerides”: are all signs in your food contains trans fats

“Hydrolyzed, glutamate and autolyzed” are all words that likely mean that the product contains monosodium glutamine which is an excitatory neurotransmitter that has been linked to headaches, migraine, blood pressure elevation, brain fog. Asthmatics are particularly susceptible to MSG reactions.

“Aspartame, saccharin, acesulfame, neotame and sucralose”: are commonly used artificial sweeteners These are used to make things sweeter without the use of sugar. There is still some controversy over the effects of artificial sweeteners on blood sugar levels and their benefits however one thing is clear, artificial sweeteners do not have the same effect on the brain sugar does. We could go down a rabbit hole with this one but we will just leave it at this: Artificial sweeteners do not activate the rewards pathways in the brain and therefore you do not get the same fulfillment and therefore will be craving sweets later. Also, most of these artificial sweeteners are toxins and some have been shown to be carcinogenic, which in our opinion is reason enough to avoid them at all costs.

“Xylitol, erythritol, mannitol, sorbitol, arabitol, ethyl maltol, glycerol etc”: these are sugar alcohols that are chemically altered carbohydrates. They can have a laxative effect on the body as well as produce symptoms of gastrointestinal upset, bloating and much more.

“Glucose-Fructose, corn syrup, glucose syrup, tapioca syrup, gruit fructose”: All of these are super sneaky names for High Fructose Corn Syrup. You have probably heard of this one before but most people don’t know just how widely used it is in our food supply. Consumption of HFCS can contribute to fatty liver disease ( due to its high fructose content which is broken down differently than other carbohydrates), type 2 diabetes ( as it can increase the chances of insulin sensitivity), as well as heart disease ( as HFCS is shown to raise cholesterol and triglyceride levels.) Be careful to do your research and try to avoid this one.

“Carrageenan”: this one is an additive found in non-dairy milk products and can be found even in organic options so be sure to check the labels. This additive is especially concerning as it has been shown to produce higher rates of colon cancer in lab animals.

Health Claims

Remember when we mentioned there being a certain level of dishonesty in the food industry? Well if we haven’t convinced you yet we think this might just tip the scales. While food manufacturers can’t outright lie to you about the ingredients in their products they can use certain “health claims” to make you think that their product is healthier. This is called “greenwashing” and we are sure you have seen it before even if you didn't notice it. Again, like with the ingredients we can’t take you through all of them or we would be here ALL day but here are some of the more common ones and what they actually mean:

“Made with Whole Grains”: All this claim needs is a tiny bit of whole grains to use this claim, make sure to check the ingredients list to see what the most predominant ingredient is.