How to Read Food Nutrition Labels [The Complete Guide]
In today’s society, there’s a lot of food variety available.
It’s normal for you to be confused about how to choose the best food for you.
Because of that, we created this guide to help you better understand the food’s nutritional labels.
To achieve your goals, you need to know the content of the food you’re eating. Knowing what’s written in the nutrition label helps you to decode the essential information about each food.
The nutrition label is a mandatory “food-information” organization system that allows you to know the nutritional data of that specific food. It shows every product used and their quantities.
Understanding nutrition labels becomes even more important for people with health problems such as diabetes, obesity, hypertension, gluten, or lactose allergies, for example.
Nutritional Information Organization
The ingredients on the ingredient list are organized in descendant order, which means:
The first ingredient on the list is the one with the highest concentration, making it the main ingredient.
Therefore, you should avoid foods that contain sugar, fat, or salt as the main ingredients.
You should also know that a lot of these foods to avoid can have other designations.
Sugar has other names such as inverted sugar, brown sugar, fructose, glucose, dextrose, honey, maltose, corn syrup, glucose syrup, and others.
Examples of foods that are high in sugar are sweeteners, cereal bars, yogurts, crackers, cereals, ketchup, and soft drinks.
Fat can be called fat acids, vegetable fat, partial ou full hydrogenated vegetable fat, margarine, butter, coconut oil, palm oil, cocoa butter, etc.
These foods contain excess fat and, as such, you should consume in moderation: sausages, nuts, butter, chips, frozen meals, and fried foods.
You should take all of this into account when you purchase your food. It doesn’t mean that you need to avoid 100% of the products that contain these ingredients, but you should consume them in moderation.
After the ingredients list, you will find the nutritional values table, divided by the different categories:
The portion size is used to facilitate comparisons with other products. The portion size is what influences the number of calories a product has, whether it's measured in grams, slices, or even bottle/package.
Usually, one portion is 100 grams.
The amount of energy available in a specific product is called calories.
This number is crucial to know to make sure you’re not consuming too much or too little calories, according to your objectives.
In this section, you’ll find the amount of carbohydrates, fats, proteins, fibers, vitamins, and minerals that the product has per portion.
When it comes to vitamins and minerals, you should take the amount needed according to your needs.
For example, someone with anemia should increase the consumption of food with high values of iron.
Percentage Daily Value
The Dietary Reference Intakes appears as a percentage (%) on the nutritional information, taking into account a 2000 calorie diet.
For example, if the product contains 20% of the DRI Sugar, it means that a portion of that product has 20% of the sugar you should take in a day.
When you’re searching for products, you don’t need to pay a lot of attention to this part because it will depend on how much calories you need in a day.
If you need 1500 or 2500 calories, the percentage in the label would not be relevant.
Nonetheless, you should pay special attention to the percentage of saturated fats, trans fats, and sugar.
Nutritional Information: The Meaning of Each Macronutrient
A well-balanced diet is fundamental to be healthy, so you need to know what you are putting in your body.
The energy value is displayed in kJ (KiloJoules) and kcal (kilocalories).
1 kcal equals to 4kJ, more or less.
Knowing this number is critical to measure the total value of calories in each food. By analyzing this, you will know if that food can help you achieve your goals, whether they are gaining, maintaining, or losing weight.
Say you need 2000 calories per day to maintain your weight.
At the end of the day, if you ate 2000 calories, you will maintain your weight. If you eat more or fewer calories, you will gain or lose weight.
Don’t make drastic cuts in your diet if you are looking to lose some weight. It’s not a sustainable option and, you’re risking muscle loss.
As a rule of thumb, you should try to consume 250-500 calories less (for women) and 500-750 (for men) of what you need. Following this tactic, you will have a controlled and sustainable weight loss plan.
This nutrient is responsible for the growth, maintenance, and repair of organs, tissues, and cells of the organism.
1 gram of protein has 4kcal.
The question that always comes up is:
"How much protein do I need per day?"
To figure this out, follow this simple exercise:
First, multiply your weight by 2.2. Then, what you should take 0.5 to 1x that number.
For example, if you weigh 70Kg.
70 Kg x 2.2 = 154
You should eat between 77 (154 x 0.5) to 154 (154 x 1) grams of protein per day.
You can eat more than this, especially because protein helps satiate the appetite, which is ideal if you're trying to lose weight.
Carbohydrates are, most of the time, seen as the enemy. However, they are necessary, in moderation, to a healthy diet because they are the primary source of energy for the body's natural functions.
At the end of the day, what dictates if you lose or gain weight is the total calories you ingest during a day.
1 gram of carbohydrates is equal to 4kcal.
Here you should always pay attention to the percentage of carbohydrates that are sugars.
For example, in 100 grams of Oreo cookies, there are 67 grams of carbohydrates, and of those 67 grams, 37 are sugars. In other words, 55% of the carbohydrates are sugars, and that’s not good.
Compare to protein cookies that can have (for example), in 100 grams, 52 grams of carbohydrates, and in those 52 grams, only 16 are sugars. In protein cookies, 30% of the carbohydrates are sugars, which is considerably lower.
You don’t need to cut the sugar from everything you eat, but consume in moderate quantities and try to choose healthier options.
Fats include saturated fatty acids, trans-fat acids, monounsaturated fatty acids, and polyunsaturated fatty acids and have a diversity of functions: vitamin transportation (A, D, E, K), which work as energy reserves and protect the vital organs of the cold and external aggressions.
1 gram of fats is equal to 9kcal, which is 5 more kcal than carbohydrates and proteins.
What you should keep in mind when analyzing fats is to avoid foods with a lot of saturated fat or trans-fats.
If your goal is to lose weight, be careful not to consume too much food with high levels of fat.
Usually, they are less fulfilling foods, and because they have 9kcal per gram, it’s easier to accumulate calories.
Don’t forget to include fibers in your diet.
The adequate consumption of fibers can have a positive effect on obesity prevention, cardiovascular diseases, and some types of cancer, but it’s fundamental for proper intestinal function.
Fruits and vegetables are foods that are rich in fibers.
The excessive consumption of salt is bad for your cardiovascular health. Because of that, and consume it in moderation.
This doesn't mean that you should cut everything with salt, only that you should be careful and not consume many foods with enough salt, such as soy sauce, ready-made sauces, Parmesan cheese, and sausages.
Now that you know how to interpret the food labels, you are wiser and can make better decisions.
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