Deciphering Product Labels!

Almost everyone has at one time or another attempted to read a label and realized that they seemed to be reading a foreign language. We try to read labels to be informed of what we are putting into our bodies, but do we really understand?

Almost everyone has at one time or another attempted to read a label and realized that they seemed to be reading a foreign language. We try to read labels to be informed of what we are putting into our bodies, but do we really understand? One of the smartest and healthiest things you can do is to educate yourself. Are you getting what you think you are? How do particular nutrients or substances affect my medication and/ or body chemistry? Is more REALLY better or would I literally be putting my life in danger? Does the amount I consume reflect my needs and my body size?

Everyone needs to be able to understand how to read labels because they affect each of us. The best place to start your label reading study is in the grocery store. First off, realize that most labels are based on a 2000-calorie diet. Many individuals, specifically sedentary people, most females and the elderly, will gain weight on a 2000-calorie diet. People don't understand why their workouts aren't working, yet they don't clearly comprehend the calories in/ calories out formula. When I ask a client how many calories they consume on a daily basis, 99% have absolutely no idea. They don't understand how to change metabolism and don't realize you begin by training from the inside out.

The best way to get a handle on your consumption is to log your food intake. Track total calories and the breakdown in grams and calories for fat, carbohydrates and protein for each item. Once you have this information, not only will you be able to calculate your total caloric intake, but you can also find out the percentages of each of these energy sources. Good tracking helps you understand whether your dietary habits are balanced or need some serious restructuring.

When you pick up an item in the grocery and scan the label for information, you should look at total calories, serving size, fat grams, saturated fat, carbohydrates, fiber, sugar, sodium, protein and the list of ingredients.

In addition to the nutritional analysis, you need to keep in mind the type or category of food you are considering, i. e. a snack, the main source of your meal, an ingredient in a recipe, etc. There is a world of difference between the caloric content of a main meal item that is 340 calories per serving and a snack that is 340 calories per serving. You need to be able to put it all into perspective.

Total Calories & Fat Content

Most people who read labels look at calories and fat content alone. However, many don't stop to consider that if an item is 150 calories, where are those calories coming from? In order to understand this, you need to know how many calories there are per gram of each nutrient. One gram of fat is 9 calories. Protein and carbohydrates each contain 4 calories per gram. If there are 14g of fat and 150 total calories, 126 of the 150 calories are from FAT! That s over 80% fats! Next, take a look at the saturated fat. Saturated fat is the artery clogging fat that increases cholesterol; its intake should always be kept at a bare minimum.

Polyunsaturated fats are found primarily in raw nuts, particularly almonds, filberts, walnuts and pecans. Seeds and unsaturated vegetable oils such as safflower oil and soybean oil are also sources of polyunsaturates. These would be categorized as Omega-6 EFA's or essential fatty acids. Monounsaturated fats are the BEST choices for fat. These are categorized as Omega-3 EFA's. These fats can be found in canola oil, olive oil, salmon, herring and avocados. We need these fats to keep cells healthy, to help regulate important metabolic processes and transport certain vitamins throughout the body. It is not wise or healthy to attempt to have a fat free diet!

Hydrogenated and partially hydrogenated fats may also be known as trans fats. The more hydrogenated the fat or oil, the harder it is, the more trans fat it is likely to contain. These are found in almost all crackers, cookies, cakes and cake mixes, margarine, muffin mixes, and many other processed foods. In all actuality, it s very difficult to find any processed food that does NOT contain hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oil. Research indicates that foods high in trans fats may be just as likely to raise LDL (bad) cholesterol as food high in saturated fat. Some research even indicates that the fat becomes even more saturated than its original form once it has been hydrogenated. Many physicians and researchers believe that trans fats are more to blame for heart disease than saturated fats. Just like saturated fat, trans fats should be kept at a minimum level.

When cooking, it is best to always use canola or olive oil unless the recipe specifically calls for another type of oil. As you can see by comparing the above labels, the amount of total fat is approximately the same. The real difference lies in the breakdown in the types of fats. The reason for the discrepancy is the deviation in the chemical structure of the oil. This deviation is key in how the product responds to our body chemistry.

Protein ///

When perusing the label for protein intake, it s helpful to understand how MUCH one needs on a daily basis. Sedentary individuals require the least amount of protein while athletes require the largest quantities. In order to understand your specific protein needs, multiply your body weight by 0.5 1.5. The variation is essential for the discrepancy in lifestyle and activity; sedentary, mildly active, moderately active, active, or athlete.

A 200 pound sedentary individual would need 100 grams of protein daily, a moderately active individual of the same weight, 200 grams and the 200 pound athlete may require up to 300 grams of protein, depending on the demands of the sport.

Carbohydrates ///

Our bodies need carbohydrates for energy. The key here lies in the source of those carbohydrates and the amount we consume. My rule of thumb for consuming carbs when making the attempt to manage them is to limit them to no more than 25 grams at one time.

Sugar ///

Hidden or added sugar can be another trap easily overlooked if you don t pay attention to reading the label and ingredients. Sugar can be identified by a number of different names including corn syrup, corn syrup solids, high fructose corn syrup, and high maltose corn syrup.

There are a multitude of items on the grocery store shelves that advertise Fat Free but may contain mostly sugar. Our bodies can't survive without fat, but they can survive without sugar! In this case, I'm referring to refined sugar those found in a wide variety of processed food, including meal replacement bars, shakes and protein powder.

Fiber ///

Your body needs 25 30 grams of fiber daily. Anything that is 5 or more grams of fiber per serving is considered high fiber. There are different classifications of fiber, including: bran, pectin and cellulose. When reading the ingredients on a label, now you will realize these are types of fiber.

Sodium ///

The last nutrient we need to address is sodium. We need less than 50 milligrams of sodium a day to stay healthy. When using canned tomatoes, soup or vegetables that contain salt, don't add more! Instead, learn to use herbs and spices to add flavor and nutrient value. The fact is, almost all food contains some sodium. If you are unaware of your sodium intake, you may want to purchase a Food Facts guide book that gives you the breakdown and nutritional analysis of almost everything you can find in your garden or grocery store.

Additives ///

The list of food additives now in use is staggering. Additives are normally used in very small amounts, yet research estimates that Americans consume an average of five pounds of additives per year. If you add sugar, the food processing industries most widely used additive, the figure jumps to an astronomical figure of 135 pounds of additive consumption per person per year! Just think that's the equivalent of the size of many adults!

Misleading Words ///

When it comes to specific wording on product labels consumers beware! It is important to understand the terms which the manufacturers use. Products such as light vegetable oil may be light in color. Lite pudding, muffins, cake or cheesecake might be labeled as such because it is light in texture. Under current regulations, there are 11 main listings for labeling. They are: free, percent fat free, low, less, fewer, more, light, reduced, lean, extra lean, good source, and high.

In January of 1993 the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the U. S. Department of Agriculture s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) addressed the problem of misleading the consumer. The term free may also be labeled without, no ,zero or an insignificant source of. Regardless of the term, the ingredient must be absent or dietetically insignificant. Percent fat free is helpful to individuals attempting to maintain a diet low in fat. The claim is required to reflect the amount of fat per 100 grams of the food. If the food contains 10g of fat per 100 grams, that item is 90% fat free.

A product can be labeled low if the consumer can eat a large amount of that particular food without exceeding the daily values for the nutrient. Little, few, low source of and contains small or trace amounts of are all within the labeling guidelines for low. These terms can be used with reference to fat, sodium, total calories, total fat, saturated fat and cholesterol. The term very low is allowed only with regard to sodium. Lean means the food has less than 10g of fat (obviously 90 calories still come from fat) , less than 4g of saturat-ed fat, and less than 95mg of cho-lesterol PER SERVING, per 100g of product. Extra lean indicates the food has less than 5g of fat, less than 2g of saturated fat and less than 95mg of cholesterol per serving per 100 grams. The terms lean and extra lean may be used to describe the fat content of poultry, seafood, game and other meat. The FSIS regulates meat and poultry. The FDA takes care of seafood and game.

High and good source refer to a focus on nutrients, such as vitamin E, calcium or fiber which are desired in higher amounts. If labeled high , the product must contain 20 percent or more of the Daily Value for that particular nutrient per serving. Rich in and excellent source of are also approved terms. 10 to 19 percent of the daily value of a particular nutrient per serving per 100g is required in order to be labeled good source.

Serving Size ///

Portion control is imperative with anything. Pay particular attention to the serving size on the label. If you pay attention only to calories and fat, you may be getting more than you realize. Consuming a half cup of shredded cheese may seem harmless, until you realize the serving size indicated on the pack-age is two tablespoons. There are 16 tablespoons per cup. In this case, you have four times the amount of calories and fat than you thought you had consumed. Instead of 4.5 grams of fat, you consumed 18 grams of fat or 162 calories from fat!

Supplements ///

Once you understand the product labels in the grocery store and begin to add to your new health conscious regimen, you ll want to expand your knowledge into understanding supplement labels. The rule is don't supplement a bad diet. Change your diet first, then add supplements. Your results will increase dramatically. If you already have a healthy diet, you'll still want to supplement. The same rules of label reading apply to supplements as they do to food. The difference here may lie in the goal of the individual or athlete. If you are trying to gain weight, you will be looking for different label information than if you were attempting to lose weight or drop body fat.

As with other product labels, choose protein supplements with very few, if any, additives or fillers. Additives increase shelf life and may be added for color, taste or texture to attempt to make food more appealing. They add NO nutritional value to a product. At worst, additives may pose a threat to your health. I have always told my students the more natural the better. Take the time to read labels; it will provide for a healthier, wiser and more confident lifestyle. Good label reading promises to help you get the results you want!

Specific Labeling Terms And Their Meanings

SUGAR FREE: Means that it has less than 0.5g per serving.

REDUCED SUGAR: Indicates that the product has at least 25% less sugar per serving.

NO SUGAR ADDED: Products are those that have had no sugar added during processing or packing. They do include products that already contain natural sugar such as dried fruit and juice.

CALORIE FREE: Means that the product is fewer than 5 calories per serving.

LOW CALORIE: Is an item that contains 40 calories or less per serving.

FAT FREE: Is less than 0.5g of fat per serving.

SATURATED FAT FREE: Tells you that the product contains less than 0.5g per serving and the level of trans fatty acids is no more than 1% of the total fat.

LOW FAT: Is 3g or less of fat per serving and if the serv-ing is 30g or less or 2 tablespoons or less, per 50g of the product.

LOW SATURATED FAT: Informs the consumer that 1g or less per serving and not more than 15 percent of the total calories are from saturated fat.

REDUCED OR LESS FAT: Can be used on the label if at least 25 percent less per serving than the original ref-erence food.

REDUCED OR LESS SATURATED FAT: Is at least 25 percent less per serving.

CHOLESTEROL FREE: Is any product that contains less than 2 mg of cholesterol and 2g or less saturated fat.

LOW CHOLESTEROL: Refers to an item that is 20mg or less and 2g or less of saturated fat per serving; and if the serving is 30g or less or 2 tablespoons or less, per 50g of the product.

REDUCED OR LESS CHOLESTEROL: Indicates a prod-uct has at least 25 percent less and 2g or less of satu-rated fat per serving.

SODIUM FREE: Is less than 5mg per serving.

LOW SODIUM: Means the product is 140mg or less per serving.

VERY LOW SODIUM: Is an item with 35mg or less per serving.

REDUCED OR LESS SODIUM: Requires that the prod-uct be at least 25 percent less per serving.

HIGH FIBER: Is any product that contains 5 or more grams per serving. High fiber claims must also meet the criteria for low fat or the level of total fat must be shown next to the high fiber claim.

GOOD SOURCE OF FIBER: Refers to products with 2.5 to 4.9g per serving.

MORE ADDED FIBER: Products must contain at least 2.5g more per serving than the original reference food.

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