How to Read a Nutrition Label

How to Read a Nutrition Label

Confused about nutrition labels? Not quite sure what you should be focusing on?

Here’s my strategy: ignore the numbers.

Instead, focus on the quality of the food itself. In other words, focus on the ingredients.

Let’s do a little thought experiment…

Which of the following two options is healthier?

  • A store-bought energy bar made with white flour, added fiber, fruit juice concentrate, hydrogenated oil, natural flavors, and synthetic vitamins
  • Homemade oatmeal made with steel-cut oats, strawberries, blueberries, almond butter, and cinnamon

Probably the second one, right?

Here’s what’s interesting…

These two options very well could have the same “nutrition facts” — same number of calories, same serving size, same macronutrient (protein, carbs, fat) percentages, and so on.

So why is the second one healthier?

It’s because of the ingredients.

The first option is highly processed; the second one is made up of whole foods. And research consistently demonstrates that processed foods can lead to health problems, from weight gain to arthritis to dementia (i.e., whole foods are the way to go).

Let’s explore a few more examples…

PROCESSED FOODS

Impossible Burger: Water, Soy Protein Concentrate, Coconut Oil, Sunflower Oil, Natural Flavors, 2% or less of: Potato Protein, Methylcellulose, Yeast Extract, Cultured Dextrose, Food Starch Modified, Soy Leghemoglobin, Salt, Soy Protein Isolate, Mixed Tocopherols (Vitamin E), Zinc Gluconate, Thiamine Hydrochloride (Vitamin B1), Sodium Ascorbate (Vitamin C), Niacin, Pyridoxine Hydrochloride (Vitamin B6), Riboflavin (Vitamin B2), Vitamin B12.

Welch’s Fruit Snacks (Mixed Fruit): Fruit Puree (Grape, Peach, Orange, Strawberry and Raspberry), Water, Corn Syrup, Sugar, Inulin (From Chicory Root), Modified Corn Starch, Gelatin, Concord Grape Juice From Concentrate, Citric Acid, Lactic Acid, Ascorbic Acid (Vitamin C), Natural and Artificial Flavors, Alpha Tocopherol Acetate (Vitamin E), Vitamin A Palmitate, Sodium Citrate, Coconut Oil, Carnauba Wax, Annatto (Color), Turmeric (Color), Red 40, Blue 1.

Udi’s Gluten-Free Hamburger Buns: Water, Tapioca Starch, Brown Rice Flour, Non-GMO Canola Oil, Egg Whites, Resistant Corn Starch, Cane Syrup, Tapioca Maltodextrin, Potato Flour, Dried Cane Syrup, Tapioca Syrup, Yeast, Sugarcane Fiber, Salt, Gum (Xanthan Gum, Sodium Alginate, Guar Gum), Cultured Corn Syrup Solids, Citric Acid, Xanthan Gum, Enzymes

MINIMALLY PROCESSED FOODS

Cherry Pie Larabar: Unsweetened Dates, Cherries, Almonds

Brad’s Original Kale Chips: Kale, Sunflower Seeds, Chickpea Miso (Rice, Chickpeas, Sea Salt, Water, Koji Spores (Aspergillus Oryzae)), Lemon Juice, Carrot, Onion, Garlic, Tomato, Himalayan Salt, Turmeric Powder.

Berlin Bakery Spelt Sourdough Bread: Whole Grain Spelt Flour, Water, Sea Salt

Despite the marketing of plant-based meats, fruit-containing snacks, and gluten-free products as “healthy,” the items on the left are not all that great for you — a laundry list of refined and man-made ingredients is typically a good indication that the food is something to avoid (or at least minimize).

But you can’t make the “processed” vs “minimally processed” distinction from the numbers alone. In fact, the numbers can be misleading — “Look how many grams of protein this has! Look how much fiber! Oh, and I’ll be getting 2000% of my daily need for vitamin B6!” (I’ve definitely been there).

Instead of focusing on the numbers, then, focus on the ingredients, and opt for products made up predominately (if not entirely) of whole, unprocessed foods.

Even better? Find foods without a nutrition label at all (e.g., fresh fruits and veggies).

Surely, some people appreciate and benefit from the minutiae of the nutrition label, and they find tracking calories, macronutrients, and/or micronutrients to be an effective way to stay on track. That’s totally cool.

But if you’re looking for something a little simpler, and you’re striving for general well-being (not 4% body fat), know that there’s another way.

Do you think this strategy might work for you? I’d love to hear your thoughts!

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