Nutrition labels and ingredient lists are amazing sources of information, especially when combined. They can help inform your decisions when purchasing food. However, there are some limitations. Sourcing, processing, and preparation methods have a huge impact on the quality and biological availability of nutrients in the product, as well as how those nutrients are digested, absorbed, and utilized in the body.
Nutrition labels provide macronutrient information (ex: carbs, protein, fat), but this can be misleading. Macronutrients vary in composition, and that’s what really matters on the biological level.
Consider this scenario: a burger from your favorite fast food place and a burger you make at home have similar nutrition label breakdowns and ingredient lists. Which one do you think is healthier? Probably the one you made at home from fresh ingredients.
If you’re trying to make healthier decisions with food, start with the nutrition facts and ingredients, but also work on creating meals with fewer processed ingredients and more fresh vegetables, fruits, proteins, and whole grains. If you want a little guidance, just look at the upcoming Blue Apron menu and select meals with the “wellness” badge.
If you’re having trouble reading the nutrition facts, here’s some information to help you decode it.
Decoding the Nutrition Facts Label
Servings & Serving Size
One of the most important pieces of information on the nutrition facts panel is the Serving Size declaration. The serving size is usually provided in grams, a common household measure such as a cup, a fraction of a package, or number of pieces. The nutrition information described on the package is all based on the amount in this serving size.
It is important to understand that serving size is not a dietary recommendation, and does not tell you how much you should eat. Serving sizes are meant to represent how much is usually consumed by an individual in one sitting.
Total Sugars vs. Added Sugars
Nutrition labels now provide Total Sugars and Added Sugars. What’s the difference? Total sugars include naturally occurring sugars from ingredients such as dairy, fruits, and vegetables as well as added sugars. Added sugars are refined sugars that like white sugar, honey, maple syrup, or others, that have been added as an additional ingredient.
Total Carbohydrates, Dietary Fiber, & Net Carb Calculation
Total Carbohydrates represent the total amount of carbs in a serving of the product. This includes, but is not limited to, dietary fiber and total sugars. Dietary fibers are carbohydrates that can aid in digestion, promote feelings of fullness, regulate glucose absorption (and therefore blood sugar levels), and lower cholesterol levels. Most of these positive qualities are attributed to soluble fibers, which slow down digestion, rather than insoluble fibers, which speed up digestion, however both are important for maintaining a healthy system. Although they’re carbohydrates, they can’t be processed as such by the human body.
You may also see a unit called Net Carbs. Since dietary fibers can’t be digested, net carbs are calculated by subtracting the dietary fiber from the total carbohydrates. This number can give us a better idea of how many carbohydrates we’re actually consuming.
Ex: Total Carbs = 20g, Dietary Fiber = 2g. Net Carbs = 20g (Total Carbs) – 2g (Dietary Fiber) = 18g
So if we don’t digest fiber, is it calorie-less? Not quite. Even though we’re unable to digest fiber, the bacteria in our gut are able to do so, and if they do, then that will provide some calories.
Ingredient lists add great context to the nutrients listed in the nutrition facts panel. They can also help you figure out if an ingredient that you are allergic or sensitive to is in the product. Ingredient lists are written in order of predominance, with the greatest amount listed first. You can use an ingredient list to help you decide if something is healthy or not, and inform your purchasing decisions.