Food Labels Demystified
Have you ever wondered what the vitamin and mineral percentages on nutrition labels actually mean? 10% of vitamin A. Is that good or bad? 10% for a child? 10% for an adult? 10% for a woman? This can feel more like a math test than a trip to the grocery store.
These are wonderful questions to ask, because otherwise you may assume double-digit percentages mean the food is nutritious, and sadly, that is often not the whole story. As an example, you may be looking to boost your calcium intake. You spot some goat’s milk, and consider trying it out. You grab the carton, flip it around and see this label: 30% calcium. Using conventional analyses, you may consider this a relatively solid source of calcium. But is it really? Should you be giving the goat milk a try? Maybe. There are some considerations over and above the number on the carton.
1. How Many Calories Will I Eat Along with That Nutrition?
If I told you that 10 doughnuts are 10 times as nutritious as one doughnut, you might call me a little crazy because you know all too well that while you will get more nutrition in 10 doughnuts than you would in one, you will also get 10 times more low-quality calories, and that is definitely not worth the miniscule nutritional boost. In this instance you understand that when looking at nutrition we have to also look at the number calories coming along with the nutrition.
Let us go back to considering that goat’s milk. We get 30% calcium in 150 calories. Put that into perspective in terms of nutrition per calorie. Moving a few aisles over, check out the collard greens. What you may notice is would get more than double that amount of calcium in 150 calories, plus a startling amount of other vitamins and minerals.
Vitamin A: 150 calories of the milk gives us 10 percent. 150 calories of collard greens gives us a whopping 665%!!.
Vitamin C: 150 calories of the milk equals four percent. One hundred and fifty calories of the collard greens gives us 295 percent.
Considering nutrition per calorie changes the game a bit. Nutrition is not the percentages you see on nutrition labels, but rather those percentages relative to the calories in the food. This is exactly why 10 doughnuts are not more nutritious than one, and why you may want to consider choosing the greens over the goat.
2. What Are YOUR Goals?
The percentages discussed above have to do with the ‘Daily Values’ that were developed during World War II to prevent soldiers from dying. Avoiding death is rather different from achieving optimal health and fitness. Unless you are satisfied with simply dodging death, making food choices based on a percentage of this Daily Value may not be particularly useful for you. A more useful approach might be to ask…
3. Do I Really Need a Nutrition Label to Know if I Should Eat This?
In the not too distant past nutrition labels were dramatically less common, and so were many chronic illnesses including obesity, diabetes and heart disease. The most nutritious foods available frequently do not have nor need a nutrition label. Examples include fresh vegetables, seafood, meat, and fruits to name a few.
What if, instead of arduous calculations, you chose to just eat food? My definition of food is always based on things you may find in nature. I believe one of the primary reasons nutrition labels exist is because unnatural food-like products are so far from whole food that we have no way of knowing whether they are slightly unhealthy or extremely unhealthy without having to analyze the data. Very generally, the best approach is if it doesn’t exist in nature, you might want to reconsider this ‘product’ as your optimal choice.
More real food, less complex math.
4. The more fiber the better
If you have two options to choose from, all other things equal, the one with more fiber will boost your health, support your digestive tract and its microbiome, fill you up and support fat loss better than the one with less.
5. The more protein the better
Protein is the most satisfying of all the macronutrients and has consistently proved to be a fat-loss super star. Do your due diligence, not all sources of protein are the same. More on this in another post.
6. The less sugar the better
Sugar is toxic. Sugar is addictive. If the word sugar or anything like it (see below) appears on the label, avoid at all costs! Your life, wellness and long-term happiness depend on it.
7. The fewer ingredients the better
Food does not need ingredients. Food is an ingredient. It is a beautiful and perfect whole substance that kept us healthy and fit for the entirety of human history. If this system is wonderful and not broken, there is no need to break it or improve on it.
8. The more vitamins and minerals per serving relative to calories per serving the better
If we don’t eat these essential substances, we get sick. It is that simple. Micronutrient sufficiency is one of the most important and least appreciated aspects of optimal health and deficiencies run rampant in our health-plagued society.
9. If it includes sweeteners, anything hydrogenated or a type of added starch, try to avoid it.
Clever marketing and fancy naming is often used to mask the truth. Sugar by any other name is at least as harmful as sucrose (table sugar). The word ‘hydrogenated’ implies poison (not really, but practically) and foods containing this in any form need to be avoided.
Here is a friendly reminder of just a few of the many types of sweeteners used in processed and manufactured products. Read your labels and be a smart consumer!
- Agave Nectar
- Barley Malt
- Beet Sugar
- Brown Sugar
- Buttered Syrup
- Cane Crystals
- Cane Juice Crystals
- Cane Sugar
- Caramel Carob Syrup
- Castor Sugar
- Confectioner’s Sugar
- Corn Sweetener
- Corn Syrup
- Corn Syrup Solids
- Crystalline Fructose
- Date Sugar
- Demerara Sugar
- Diastatic Malt
- Ethyl Maltol
- Evaporated Cane Juice
- Fruit Juice
- Fruit Juice Concentrates
- Glucose Solids
- Golden Sugar
- Golden Syrup
- Granulated Sugar
- Grape Sugar
- High-Fructose Corn Syrup
- Honey Icing Sugar
- Invert Sugar
- Malt Syrup
- Maple Syrup
- Muscovado Sugar
- Raw Sugar
- Refiner’s Syrup
- Rice Syrup
- Sorghum Syrup
- Sucrose Sugar Syrup
- Treacle Turbinado Sugar
- Yellow Sugar
To Simplify: If You Can’t Find It Directly It Nature, Steer Clear
It just makes sense that the only foods available for us for 99.8% of our evolutionary history are what we should be eating 99.8% of the time. Life is complex enough. Simplify where you can.