I’m concerned for my health. That’s why I read nutrition labels.
I sure don’t read nutrition labels for fun. I hate reading nutrition labels. I wish food was healthy enough so I didn’t have to anymore.
Unfortunately, society isn’t at that stage yet. Until we get there, we’re going to have to read nutrition labels like the ones you see below.
And believe me, they’re terrifying.
We all grew up eating Oreos. If you didn’t love dunking the black and white cookies into a big glass of milk every now and then, I don’t think you had a childhood.
But milk’s favorite cookie just got a whole lot scarier.
They were awesome when you were 9 years old and oblivious to nutrition, food labeling and obesity. But now? Better just dump the blue package sitting in your cabinet in the trash.
Let’s take a peek at the nutrition label of a standard Oreo cookie.
Whew. That’s a whole lot of bad and very little good.
Here are my top 2 problems with the Oreos nutrition label:
- The main ingredient
- Enriched flour
The main ingredient: sugar
The very first ingredient on the label isn’t even flour. It’s sugar.
That waves 100 red flags saying DO NOT buy this product.
Added sugar is a huge problem in the standard American diet (SAD). Added sugar contributes to the obesity, diabetes and heart disease epidemics. It’s linked to weight gain and diabetes. All forms of added sugar that don’t come from whole foods (i.e. fruit) contribute empty calories to the diet.
A small amount of sugar is okay. Adding a teaspoon of sugar to your tea in the morning won’t cause diabetes, heart disease, cavities or weight gain. But eating Oreos on a regular basis sure will.
We need to look out for and avoid added sugar. Start by avoiding foods whose main ingredient is sugar.
>> Did you know: Most Americans get 10% of their calories from added sugar. 10% of the population get a quarter of their daily calories from added sugars. <<
Enriched wheat flour
Enriched flour is a good thing in theory. But bad in practice.
The US implemented laws forcing food producers to start enriching flour when individuals started to develop nutrient deficiencies after eating large amounts of calories from refined wheat.
This practice reduces the amount of nutrient deficiencies in the US. On the other hand, this practice encourages individuals to keep eating refined wheat flour. It also discourages individuals from getting their nutrients from natural, whole-food sources. A.K.A. fruits, vegetables, grains and legumes.
But why does the source matter? Nutrition is nutrition, right?
Food comes in packages. You’re getting more benefit out of eating an orange than just the vitamin C. You get fiber, calcium, phytonutrients, antioxidants and other great stuff you need to survive and thrive. But the other great stuff isn’t added back into enriched flour products. You get what’s on the label. That’s it.
Another problem with enriched flour is that the minerals are slightly different than the ones found in whole foods. Nutrients made synthetically are modified in order to be stable. The body recognizes this and treats them differently than nutrients naturally found in whole foods.
In fact, synthetic nutrition can not only be unwanted at times, but detrimental in some cases.
Most of the time more is better. But it’s not always the case.
Oreos has one beneficial attribute: it doesn’t contain trans-fats.
Trans-fats are the worst type of fats. They increase bad cholesterol (LDL) and decrease good cholesterol (HDL). Trans-fats increase risk for cancer and heart disease.
No safe upper limit has been established in the US. For this reason, as of June 2015, artificial trans-fats will need to stop being added to processed foods in the United States by 2016.
Popcorn can be a healthy snack if prepared correctly. Or it can be a nightmare for your health.
We’re looking at the scary sort of popcorn.
This is the nutrition label of Orville’s butter flavored popcorn:
My top 2 problems with this nutrition label:
- Calories from fat
- Saturated fat
Calories from fat
The first problem with Orville’s popcorn is the percentage of calories that come from fat. Normally, I look for foods that are between 10-15% fat. 20% max. By dividing the calories from fat by the total number of calories, we can see that nearly 65% of the calories come from fat. That’s more than three times my max amount.
It’s not necessary to be wary of all foods high in fat. Nuts, seeds and select fruits are high in fat. But processed foods high in fat likely contain added fats in the form of oil. Oil provides no significant health effects and contributes empty calories to the diet.
Since popcorn contributes only 10% of calories from fat, this product must have added fat.
The second problem with the microwave popcorn is the saturated fat it.
The label says that one serving contains 6 grams of saturated fat. 6 grams of saturated fat is 30% of the recommended limit for the day. That means less than 10% of your calories are contributing 30% of your saturated fat for the day.
Saturated fat is the other bad type of fat. Saturated fat also increases both bad cholesterol and good cholesterol. Any increase in cholesterol increases your risk for developing heart disease.
Fortunately, popcorn has to beneficial attributes:
Fiber is great for you. Fiber helps you feel full without adding calories to your food. It combats against obesity by slowing down the digestion of food and preventing blood sugar spikes. Fiber also keeps our digestive systems running efficiently. Fiber feeds the beneficial bacteria in our gut, absorbs liquid and adds bulk to waste to make our… excrement softer.
One serving of popcorn contains 3 grams of fiber. That’s a good start for just 170 calories. The USDA recommends that individuals eat at least 25 grams of fiber per day. Get more if you can. You can’t eat too much fiber.
Potassium is beneficial because it works against the added sodium (salt) that’s common in the SAD. Your body is able to regulate sodium levels easier with enough potassium. Better sources of potassium are beet greens, swiss chard and spinach.
Yet another food kids tend to love: hot dogs.
Hot dogs while camping. Macaroni and cheese with hot dogs. Quintessential American childhood experiences are derived from the mystery meat.
But the nutrition label of Hillshire Farm’s beef hot links is much less innocent than camping.
Two of my concerns after looking at the nutrition label are:
- Isolated soy protein
Any food that has cholesterol contains animal products.
Consuming a small amount of animal products won’t cause health problems. But a large amount will. Consuming cholesterol increases the amount of cholesterol in your body. High cholesterol is a third risk factor for cardiovascular disease.
When it comes to ingesting foods with cholesterol, less is better. Your body doesn’t need to be fed cholesterol in order to have enough amounts to survive.
High consumption of animal foods (i.e. foods that contain cholesterol) is correlated with chronic diseases like cancer, heart disease, osteoporosis and diabetes.
Isolated soy protein
There’s no need to add more protein to a hot dog. It provides plenty of protein for the amount of calories it contains.
But that’s exactly what the isolated soy protein is doing.
Isolated soy protein is also shown to be just as damaging to the body as animal protein.
Very high protein diets of any kind (plant-based or animal-based) are correlated with shorter lifespans. You don’t need a lot of protein to survive. 10% of calories is enough protein to live happily and healthfully.
Unlike other hot dogs, this product doesn’t contain mechanically separated chicken, turkey or pork.
So at least you won’t be eating any animal anuses, bones or skin on your 4th of July BBQ.
Wait, why is Lean Cuisine on this list?
Isn’t it supposed to be a line of healthy food for those looking to lose weight?
Sure, you can eat Lean Cuisine if you want to lose weight. But it’s not healthy and you’ll be hangry all the time.
hangry- irritable as a result of feeling hungry
The nutrition label for Lean Cuisine’s Alfredo pasta with chicken and broccoli is really something to look at.
Now that’s a long nutrition label! That must take up the whole backside of the tiny frozen package.
Like the other items on this list, there are more than just a 2 problems. But 2 major concerns on this label are the:
- Number of ingredients
Ironically, this food actually has to few calories per serving, not too many.
Lean Cuisine frozen meals are supposed to be meals not snacks. But, it’s impossible to call 280 calories a meal. If you decided to eat 3 lean cuisine meals per day you would eat under 1,000 calories per day. Sure, you’ll lose weight. But you’d also be starving yourself.
Meals are supposed to provide nutrition and energy. This meal doesn’t provide much of either.
If you’re looking to lose weight, you should eat at least 1,500 calories per day. Those wanting to maintain weight should follow the USDA guideline of 2,000 calories or more per day. There’s no need to be hungry and be healthy. I eat between 2,500 and 2,750 calories per day and maintain a healthy weight for my height.
Number of ingredients
That ingredient list is massive.
Seriously, it’s insanely long.
It’s impossible to set a number for how many ingredients is too many. But if it takes you 5 minutes to read, it’s too long.
In order to nourish yourself you need to eat real food. There’s nothing wrong with a few preservatives. On the other hand, it seems like half of the ingredients on the label are preservatives, additives, stabilizers or texturizers.
Why can’t they use regular onions and celery rather than dehydrated ones? And what the hell is enzyme modified parmesan cheese paste?
Despite the long ingredients list and lack of calories, this Lean Cuisine meal has a redeeming quality: the carbohydrates.
All of the other foods on this list have been extremely high in fat. On the other hand, this one is low in fat. Only 12.5% of the calories come from fat. Additionally, it provides 45 grams of carbohydrates. That means that the majority of the calories will provide you energy to think and move the rest of the day.
Reading nutrition labels
I went through to above nutrition labels. I showed you what was wrong with items in the ingredients list or on the nutrition table.
Now it’s time to learn how to do the same thing.
Even if you want to eat whole foods, there comes a time when you need to read a nutrition label. Options can be limited when traveling or under special circumstances.
The big 3
These are the top 3 items I glance at when looking at a nutrition label:
- Calories from fat
- Major ingredients
Calories from fat
I eat a high carbohydrate diet. I also eat a low fat diet. Hence, I want to maximize the number of calories that come from carbohydrates and minimize calories from fat.
I rarely whip out my calculator to get exact percentages. You can round numbers to get a good estimation and that’s all you need.
[color-box color=”yellow”][icon name=”arrow-down”] Remember: I look to stay lower than 20% of calories from fat. [/color-box]
Sodium is a big problem in the western world, especially in the US.
When scanning ingredients lists, especially canned products, compare the number of calories to the number of milligrams of sodium it contains. If a sodium number is more than double of the calorie number, avoid the product. It has too much sodium per calorie.
Products that have roughly equal numbers of sodium and calories are fine to eat. It’s best to get products with no salt added whenever you can.
The USDA recommends that individuals consume less than 2,400 milligrams of sodium per day. Cutting that in half is even better.
All you need to do is scan the first few lines. Check to see if oil, sugar or enriched flour is in those first two lines.
If one is, avoid it. If it’s not, then a small amount of added sugar or enriched flour every here and there isn’t so bad. Just make sure you don’t go overboard.
>> Avoid all added oils. They’re very concentrated in calories. <<
After doing that quick scan you can check for the other items I mentioned above.
- Enriched wheat flour
- Saturated fat
- Too much protein
- Number of ingredients
The more nutrition labels you read the better you’ll get at it.
Nutrition labels can be extremely confusing for the consumer to understand. Yet learning to do so is a valuable tool to maintain health in the unhealthy society we live in today.