How to Read Food Labels
Label Reading 101 – Advice from Jeff Novick MS, RD, LD, LN
The above picture is probably enough to scare anyone off of this topic. This is why I have created this post, which is a summary of label reading information presented in Jeff Novick’s DVD, ‘Should I Eat That?’ If you are interested in seeing some of the source material here is a YouTube clip of a portion of the lecture. The YouTube video is entitled, Health Food vs. Healthy Food- How to read labels.
Jeff Novick serves as Vice President of Health Promotion for Executive Health Exams International and lectures at the McDougall Program in Santa Rosa, California and at the Engine 2 Immersion program in Austin, TX. For almost a decade, Jeff served as the Director of Nutrition at the Pritikin Center in Aventura, Florida, and as Vice President of the Board of the Directors for the National Health Association (NHA). He also served as the Director of Health Education for the NHA and as an Adjunct Professor in the School of Health Sciences for Kaplan University. While in Indiana, he created and taught the Nutrition Education Initiative, a preventive medicine curriculum for medical doctors, residents, and medical students. In recognition of this groundbreaking project, Indiana’s governor awarded him the Indiana State Public Health Excellence in Health Science Award, and Indiana State University awarded him the Graduate-of-the-Last-Decade Award.
My training and education is as a registered massage therapist, therefore I am admittedly moving out of my area of expertise here. Even though I completed many courses in physiology, pathology, and nutrition, I am not licensed to give advice in this area. This is why I will constantly refer to Jeff Novick’s work, and his recommendations on the topic of label reading. As well, I will refer to other health studies that link diet and health. What I do know is that label reading is a task that governments and regulators believe anyone should be able to do. Therefore, label reading should be clear, simple and straightforward. How I wish that this were the case, but this is not my impression of label reading. I don’t know about you, but I personally find this to be an almost near impossible task, and I am someone who spends a lot of time reading health articles. Therefore, I was pleased to discover Jeff Novick’s video presentation on this topic. What I have done here is to adapt his video presentation into a health article tailored toward a Canadian audience.
Canadian labels are actually a bit harder to read than the American label shown here, because manufacturers do not list the total calories from fat on food labels in our country. This would be way too easy; and way too clear for consumers! What Canadian manufacturers provide is the percentage numbers on the right hand side of the nutrition facts (above), and at first glance you might think that product is 5% fat, when in reality it is 33% fat. But where on this label does it say 33% fat? Nowhere!! This is why I am writing this article.
For example, to determine the percentage of fat in this American product label, one divide the calories per serving (CPS) from fat into the CPS of the product and multiply by 100%. (30 CPS ÷ 90 CPS x 100% = 33% fat) Note that both numbers are based upon suggested serving size (5 ounces in the case of this label). The 5% number relating to fat is a percentage daily value based upon:
a) the serving size (which may or may not be reasonable), and
b) on a diet where you eat 30% of your calories from fat. The problem with the 30% recommendation is that over 60% of Canadians are overweight, and current data suggests that when you reduce the calorie density of your food by reducing fats, you lose weight.
These two variables (arbitrary portion size, and the 30% dietary fat recommendation), make the percentage numbers on the right side of any label almost useless. This type of obfuscation on the part of food manufacturers is no accident, but let’s stay on point rather than stray into the area of corporate agendas.
So as you can see, Americans almost need a calculator to determine the fat content of their food. In Canada you can’t even find calories from fat listed anywhere on the label! As a result, high math and a calculator are required when you go to the grocery store. This is exactly why I wrote this article.
Most people find food product label reading to be quite challenging. We might look at a label and think that maybe we understand it, but if we are asked basic questions such as, what is the fat content of this product, or how much sodium should a product contain, or how much sugar was added to this product, you realize that you have no idea. As you look at the Nutrition Facts area of the label, you will find a mixture of weight, volume, calories, and percent daily values, all in one tiny area. This mixture of labelling using multiple measurement systems actually muddies the nutritional information, rather than clarifies it. Therefore, Jeff suggests that you limit your label reading to three basic areas, and forget about everything else on the label. This makes shopping much easier and faster. The areas of the label that you will want to look at are:
- Added sugars (i.e. sugars not naturally occurring)
- Fat content of the product
- Sodium content of the product
These three basic things tell you most of what you need to know about whether or not to buy or eat the product. The following rules and suggestions apply whether you are looking at a bottle, a box, a can or an envelope. As long as it is a food product, these same basic rules will still apply.
Jeff also suggests that we follow three basic rules in label reading.
Rule # 1 –– Never, ever believe anything on the front of any product. . . ever. In other words… never!
Rule # 2 — Always read the Nutrition Facts and also scan the List of Ingredients
Rule # 3 – If you can’t pronounce it, then don’t put it into your body – except quinoa. You can eat quinoa! 🙂
Understanding The List of Ingredients
The list of ingredients lists all food constituents from heaviest to lightest. In other words, it is a list of ingredients by decreasing weight (not calories, or volume).
There are three main things to check for in the list of ingredients:
1. Look for whole grains, not refined grains.
2. Must contain no bad fats (see below)
3. Must have limited ‘added’ sugars. As a rule, sugar should not be one of the first three ingredients on the ingredients list.
1. Whole Grains
The thinking here, is that our entire diet should, wherever possible be foods in their whole, unrefined form. As grains become refined, the sugars contained within them become absorbed into our blood stream much quicker, causing a spike in our blood sugar. Whole grains, on the other hand contain more nutrients and more fibre than refined grains, and the sugar contained within them is released more slowly into the blood stream. If the ingredient list does not say whole grain (as above), then it is not whole grain. It is really that simple!
Do not be fooled by words like semolina, Durham, organic, unbleached, seven-grain, multi-grain. They are not whole grain unless preceded by the phrase, ‘whole grain’.
The following terms are definitely refined grains: pearl barley, hominy, farina, couscous, grits, white rice, enriched ________, degerminated _______.
It is not that these refined grains are inherently bad for you; it is just that their whole food equivalent is preferred, for reasons discussed earlier.
Here is a litany of the fats to avoid. If you are wondering why, then look at the picture of this sailor.
i. Animal fats: (All Animal fats are saturated.) Some names include: lard, chicken fat, butter, cheese, milk, yoghurt, curds, cream, kefir, quark, and whey
ii. Saturated vegetable fats: coconut oil, cottonseed oil, and palm oil
iii. All synthetic (man-made) saturated vegetable fats: partially hydrogenated vegetable oil, Trans fat, margarine, and shortening
iv. Interesified fats: “modified” palm oils, modified soy oil, and fully hydrogenated coconut oil
Your daily consumption of these fats listed above should be ZERO. These fats have no positive effect on the body’s metabolism or health, and most of them have a negative effect on our health. If you see terms such as Trans fat, hydrogenated or modified, then run and don’t look back! These synthetic fats are definitively linked to heart disease and many other health problems. This does not mean that polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats are all okay though, or that they are good for you. Poly and monounsaturated fats are fine when they occur naturally, packaged in fruits and vegetables, encased in fibre, present in small amounts along with vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients. However, when oil is fractionated from its original source, all of the important plant fibre and nutrients (of the soy, olive, corn, almond, etc.) have been removed, and you are left with the most calorie dense food on the planet! This is the reason that you do not want fractionated oils from any food source in your diet, whether the source is plant or animal.
All sugars listed in the list of ingredients are added sugars, (i.e. are present in addition to the naturally occurring sugars already in the product) and as mentioned, they are listed by decreasing weight. Avoid buying any product where a sugar appears as one of the first three ingredients. Names like nectar, syrup, juice, and sweetener will tell you that it is a sugar. As well, anything that ends in the suffix “-ose” is also a sugar. Here is a list of the types of names that you will see on ingredient lists, telling you that the added ingredient is a sugar.
|Agave nectar||Evaporated cane juice||Malt syrup|
|Brown sugar||Fructose||Maple syrup|
|Cane crystals||Fruit juice concentrates||Molasses|
|Cane sugar||Glucose||Raw sugar|
|Corn sweetener||High-fructose corn syrup||Sucrose|
|Crystalline fructose||Invert sugar|
Your body actually runs on sugar. All carbohydrates that you eat are eventually broken down into glucose, a simple six-carbon sugar. Glucose is converted into ATP, and ATP is used everywhere in the body for energy. Sugars are not the problem per se, but added sugars can present a problem. Just like fats, the added sugars are also cheap and deceptively satisfying (a.k.a., mildly addicting.) Naturally occurring sugars that occur within fruits and vegetables are not a problem in most people’s diet. Encased in fibre, these sugars release slowly into the blood stream. One problem with added (refined) sugars is that they are released into the blood stream quickly and cause blood sugar spikes.
The average American takes in fully a fifth (20%) of their calories as refined, added, concentrated sugars, consuming 150 pounds of sugar per year. (Compare this to 7 ½ pounds consumed on average in the year 1700). Most of this sugar is hidden within processed and restaurant foods. Our daily sugar quota is easily satisfied in any season with whole natural foods like fruits and vegetables. This is why we need to be cognizant of added sugar in processed, packaged foods that we buy.
4. Chemical Additives
Finally, we come to the unpronounceables. I am speaking about the ingredients whose chemical names are difficult to pronounce. Even if you find chemical names easy to pronounce, Jeff suggests that you proceed with caution with these additives. There have been entire books written on this topic, so I will not delve into any great depth here. As a general rule, if you can’t pronounce it, you probably don’t want to put it in your body. There may be some exceptions to this rule, but if you follow this simple label-reading rule, you will always be walking on the safe side of healthy eating, rather than on the precipice.
Understanding ‘Nutrition Facts’
Information provided in the Nutrition Facts area of the food label is undoubtedly the most difficult information for the consumer to sort out. Manufacturers seem to do their best in this portion of the label (which is actually meant to provide meaningful information to the consumer) to misdirect and confuse us with questionable portion sizes, and consistently using multiple measurement systems to describe the food ingredients. Here, once again, Jeff Novick provides three basic areas to look at.
1. Look at the serving size. Is this a reasonable number? Many manufacturers bend the rules on this one.
2. Total Calories from fat should be no more than 20% of the total calorie content.
**Problem- Canadian labels typically do not list total calories from fat
3. Sodium content should not exceed a 1:1 ratio when compared with calories.
You will note that Jeff Novick does not address carbohydrates or sugar in the nutrition facts portion of the label. While carbohydrates are listed on the nutrition facts, his suggestion is that you address concerns about this nutrient in the list of ingredients.
1) SERVING SIZE
You need to look at the serving size on the label, because it is often an unrealistic amount. For example if the box suggests a 4-cracker serving size, and you know that you will eat a dozen crackers, then use your good sense when assessing fat, sodium and calorie content of the product. Many serving sizes are reasonable, but some are not, and you cannot assume that the manufacturer has your personal eating habits in mind when they created the food label.
As you probably know, the actual serving size in the North American restaurant industry has increased dramatically over the last century. This has also happened in food packaging. It is not uncommon to see products that are packaged large sized containers, but where storage of leftover product is impossible, or unreasonable. Once the seal on these products in broken, either you or somebody else will need to consume the product, or you will be forced to throw it out. It seems odd that the serving size listed on the label is only a portion of the package, when they know that you are going to eat the whole bag, bottle or box.
Rule– No more than 20% calories from fat in processed (packaged) foods. (While a whole food, plant-based diet should be 10- 15 % fat overall, there is some leeway provided in packaged food. If vegetables are added, or water is added to the final dish, it will bring the overall fat content down to an acceptable number.)
**Problem– Canadian labelling laws do not require manufacturers to list the total calories from fat. As well, the % Daily Values are based on a diet containing 30% fat. This makes Canadian fat labelling almost useless.
Solution– The total grams from fat are listed in the Nutrition Facts. Multiply the total grams of fat per serving by 10 (1g. fat= 9 calories so we are rounding up here), and you get the total number of calories from fat in a serving. You can now compare this number against the total calories per serving. 20% fat is okay, 10% fat is great, and less than 10% fat is even better.
Let’s use the above label as an example. This product has total of 170 calories per serving. It also shows total fat of 2.5 grams. (This is the first number to the right of the word fat. Ignore the % number to the right of this number, even though it is presented in bold type. (This ‘%’ number in bold type represents how much fat that would be as a percentage of your daily consumption of fat, assuming that your diet consisted of 30% fat. It does not tell you the percentage of fat in this product, even though it has a % sign. It is very misleading, so do not look at it!)
1) Multiply 2.5 grams per serving times 10 calories per gram of fat, to arrive at 25 calories from fat in a serving.
2) Divide 25 calories of fat per serving by 170 calories per serving, and then multiply by 100 to get the percentage of fat in this product.
3) (25 calories fat per serving ÷ 170 total calories per serving) x 100 % = 15% fat. This product passes the fat percentage test; however, you will notice that it does contain some saturated fats, so this will be a judgment call that you will need to make.
You can probably see the need for a calculator when shopping. If you are using a calculator, then use 9 cal./g as an energy conversion for fat. However, if you are doing math in your head, then use 10 cal./g to make calculation easier.
Background on Fat- The Canadian Daily Value used in nutritional labelling is based on 65 g (585 calories) of fat for a 2000-calorie reference diet. For some reason, our own Canadian government is suggesting that Canadians consume 30% of calories from fat, even though we have been consuming this much fat for decades and obesity continues to spin out of control with over 60% of Canadians now considered to be overweight (BMI > 25). This is completely out of step from the research by doctors listed in the next paragraph that are reversing diabetes and heart disease, successfully treating obesity and a host physical ailments with a diet containing 10 – 15% of calories from fat. Furthermore, allowing labelling based on Daily Values is in itself a bad idea, because these values will always be up for debate. Add to this, who among us records and adds up each and every meal’s sodium, or fat, or carbohydrate, or fibre, or cholesterol to arrive at a daily total? It is not even close to reasonable to expect people to be remembering or recording these numbers. As far as dietary fat is concerned, the only thing that you need to know when you eat something is, “How close is this product to the ideal number of 10 – 15% dietary fat?” (Variance in this number depends upon whether you have diagnosed heart disease. A 2014 study showed that people with heart disease reduced their chance of cardiovascular event by a factor of 100 by switching to a whole food, plant-based diet containing 10% fat.
What is essential in the area of fat consumption? In other words, what are your minimum fat requirements? We only need a small amount of essential fats, about 3-5% of our daily total calories. These essential fats are omega 3 and omega 6 fats. The problem fats are the non-essential fats. The nutrition gurus who make recommendations about this sort of thing fall into two camps- the low fat, high carb camp, and the low carb, high fat camp. The notable doctors in the low fat camp are healthy doctors with svelte physiques such as Dean Ornish (has been reversing heart disease and obesity in his patients for over 30 years and has published multiple studies), Caldwell Esselstyn (currently 80 years of age, he has been reversing heart disease and obesity in his patients for over 25 years and has published several papers and studies with amazing success), T. Colin Campbell (80 years of age as well, author of The China Study, the most comprehensive nutritional study ever performed, and has published over 300 studies showing the strong connection between dietary fat, animal protein and cancer), John McDougall (who has been reversing diabetes, heart disease, MS, rheumatoid arthritis, and obesity), Dr. Michael Klaper (who has had similar success to Dr. McDougall), and Neal Barnard (President of Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, has published several studies showing reversal of diabetes with a low fat diet). All of these doctors call for a maximum daily fat consumption varying from 10-15% of daily calories. Most leading doctors in the high fat camp are either overweight or obese, and limited health studies back up their claims. The high fat (low carb) camp (the most famous of which was Atkins) adds fuel to the fire and reinforces their position with studies where the low-fat comparison group eats around 25% of calories from fat. In no way is this a low fat diet. At 25%, you will not see reversal of diabetes, and heart disease, and it is extremely difficult to lose weight unless you exercise a tremendous amount.
As a guideline for packaged (processed) foods, Jeff Novick compromises at 20% fat content, assuming that the rest of your diet is whole foods with no added oils. This will bring your dietary fat consumption down to about 10- 15% fat. This 20% figure sounds high to me, but he is speaking to an audience of whole food, plant-based eaters, so there will only be small amounts of fat in the rest of their diet. He also assuming that packaged food makes up a small portion of their diet, with whole fruits, vegetable and starches making up the bulk of their diet.
*Side note, if you want to know the number of monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats in and given product, subtract the sum of saturated and trans fats from the total fat, you will find the amount of monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats.
The quick guideline here is shoot for slightly less than 1:1 ratio of mg of sodium compared to the total calories per serving. 1:2 is even better. The exception is condiments, where the sodium content is allowed to be higher.
As you can see, looking at the figure above, we need to watch the sodium in our processed (packaged) food. These foods and restaurant food comprise 77% of North Americans’ sodium intake. Cutting back on your table use will not drastically effect your overall consumption, if you have typical eating habits.
Background on Sodium– The National Academy of Sciences reports that 90% of Americans take in harmful amounts of sodium each day, with only 10% of it coming from the saltshaker. The rest of it lies buried in processed and restaurant food. The US Institute of Medicine (IOM) is an independent, non-profit health arm of the National Academy of Sciences that works outside of government to provide unbiased and authoritative advice to decision makers and the public. It recommends 1200 – 1500 mg of sodium per day with an upper limit of 2300 mg of sodium per day. Interestingly, the average US intake of sodium is 3000 – 5000 mg.!
With a daily caloric intake of 2000 – 2300 calories, you can see that the easiest math involves a daily intake of one mg. of sodium per dietary calorie. Therefore, Jeff Novick sets 1:1 as the ratio of sodium to calories on the nutrition label as an upper limit, with 1:2 being ideal. The exception is condiments (ketchup, hot sauce, soy sauce etc.). Here you can bend the rule, because you will be using just a little of it on top of whole food containing very little naturally-occurring sodium.
**Note on salt- Do not cook with salt. Add it on the surface of the food, at the table, when you are about to eat. Why? Because then your taste buds will sense the salt, and it will have maximum impact. As an example, a typical slice of bread contains three times more salt than a typical potato chip, and yet the potato chip tastes saltier. Why is this? It is because the salt is on the surface of the chip, but with the bread, it is incorporated into the flour matrix where you do not taste it.
FYI– You will eventually be adding some salt when you eat your food. Remember that one teaspoon of salt contains 2200 mg. of sodium.
The Nutrition Facts area of the food label does not differentiate between naturally occurring sugars and added sugars. Nor does it differentiate between simple and complex carbohydrates. It simply lists total carbohydrates. To determine what sugars have been added, return to the Ingredient List. It will reveal the added sugars in order of decreasing weight.
Something that you will see in the nutrition facts area of the label, listed under carbohydrates is fibre. Increased fibre content will suggest either complex carbohydrates and/or fruit. Accumulating evidence indicates that greater dietary fiber intake reduces risk for diabetes, heart disease, certain cancers, weight gain, obesity, and diverticular disease, as well as constipation. So, we need to eat more fiber rich foods. Whole plant foods are preferable, but if we do buy something packaged, the first word in the ingredients list should be “whole.” But then, the rest of the ingredients could be junk; so, a second strategy is to look at the ratio of grams of carbohydrates to grams of dietary fiber. We’re looking for a ratio of 5:1, or less than 5:1. The nutrition facts label above has 25 grams of carbohydrate and 2 grams of fibre. This product would need 5 grams or more of fibre to be acceptable using the 5:1 rule.
It is very hard for the average person to get too much fibre. Basically, the more fibre, the better! For more on this topic, refer to my post on carbohydrates and fibre.
6) Complex Carbohydrates
Complex carbohydrates are not listed separately in the nutrition facts area of the label; however, fibre will give you a sense of the presence of complex carbohydrates. To determine the presence of complex carbohydrates, you will need to check the ingredients list. Vegetables listed in the ingredients list, along with your good sense will suggest if there complex carbohydrates in the product. From a labelling perspective, there is no definitive way to determine the percentage of complex carbohydrates from the food label.
You now know how to read a label, and you know how to determine whether a packaged food product is healthy or not. The next exercise I would suggest is to pull some food out of your pantry, and see how these items measure up. After that, I am sure that it will be time to go shopping, and at that time, you will be better prepared to make an intelligent decision when you look at a food label.