A nutrition label — well, almost anything, really — is MUCH more cheery reading material than the news that seems to have enveloped us all. I’m not suggesting we bury our heads in the sand, but if we can agree that we can’t read all the news, all the time, then maybe we could fill a small bit of that quiet empty space with some nice, informative, helpful nutrition information.
See? Don’t you feel better already?
Given that nutrition is my business, I probably take reading nutrition labels for granted. Admittedly, I spend an inordinate amount of time in grocery stores, especially new and fun ones, comparing all the novel and exotic options that are available. Unless your friendly local dietitian (or health teacher) has taken the time to explain the ins and outs of a nutrition label to you, you’d be perfectly within your rights to wonder why I think that’s so entertaining.
With just a little training up, you, too, can make sense of the small print that occupies your pantry. I’m not suggesting that you slavishly concern yourself with every detail. Knowing the what?, how?, and why? of a few of the most crucial line items will go a long way toward your being able to make some more informed, and I hope healthier, choices.
The calorie line does matter. But here’s what’s even more basic: the serving size. If you select just a few items, you’ll quickly see that it’s not unusual for the number of servings in a container to be two or more. It’s a logical step to assume you’re eating or drinking the number of calories on the label — but the writing stating the number of servings in the container is surprisingly small.
Consider: in a jar of peanut butter, you understand that there are several servings of delicious apple-ready stuff in there. But in, say, a bottled smoothie, there could easily be two and a half, and your instinct is probably to drink the entire bottle. Besides knowing that a container may consist of several servings, knowing the size of the serving is the next important item.
Your cereal will NEVER say “Serving size: 1 bowl.” It’s common to assume that whatever you pour into your bowl is a serving, but if you look at the label, you’ll notice that almost every cereal has a different and specific size. Dense types (think of small, high-fiber brands) may have a serving size of 1/3 cup, while big flakes with very little sugar might come in at 3/4 cup.
Finally, glance at the order of items in the ingredient list: they’re listed in order of highest amount to lowest. Are the top few ingredients sugar-related (syrups, actual sugars), or maybe unpronounceable chemicals? Leave those on the shelf. A good rule of thumb is that fewer ingredients are pretty much always better, when comparing two similar items.
New label legislation is on the horizon, though still a couple of years off, which is the last time I’ll mention politics in this post.
Happily, the most consequential changes will be that the number of servings will become the dominant number, and added sugars will be included. This is good to know — fruit and milk contain naturally-occurring sugars (that’s how they get us to like them), but they don’t contain added sugars. Sounds intuitive, yes? But it’ll be nice to know where added sugars — the ones we may never suspect — are hiding. Hint: granola. That’ll get its own post.
Labels are great, but remember that some of the BEST foods don’t come with nutrition facts slapped on the side. You guessed it: whole fruits and vegetables. Go ahead and assume that you can eat more than one serving of those superheroes! Of course, if you and your physician and/or dietitian are limiting certain types of ANY food, that plan takes precedence over anything I write here.
Next time we discuss nutrition labels, we’ll get into vitamins, minerals, fiber, fat, protein, and carbohydrates. For now, check out those values for serving number and size, as well as comparative calories and ingredients.
So go have a look around your grocery aisles and challenge yourself to find a few new bits of valuable knowledge you didn’t have before today. Just don’t listen to the self-proclaimed nutrition expert at the gym whose universal advice is something along the lines of “don’t eat anything white.” You know the type. And yes, you now know more than that person.