Shopping for healthy groceries when you’re beginning to read into product labels can be a bit confusing, especially with the jargon and, sometimes, misleading claims.
Following these tips, however, can help you understand how to scan labels to make informed choices.
When reading a label, always look out for –
(1) The Serving Size
Starting with the basics – don’t forget that the values shown on the label generally refer to a single serving, not the whole product. Take note of the serving size being displayed while understanding its contents.
(2) The Type of Fats it Contains
Fats aren’t the same and don’t necessarily need to be avoided. There are “good” fats and “bad” fats.
While saturated fats aren’t all bad, look for foods that have more unsaturated fats. Unsaturated fats, such as omega-3 fats, have a number of demonstrated health benefits.
Moreover, it’s important that the values and ingredients don’t mention trans-fats, the kind that increase the “bad” cholesterol in blood.1A “0% trans-fat” claim may not disclose the fact that it could still contain these fats, but within the amount of 0.5 grams per serving (which may seem like a harmless amount, but can quickly add up). Its presence can still be detected, though; look for “shortening”, “hydrogenated oil” or “partially hydrogenated oil” in the ingredients list.
(3) Fibre per Serving
Dietary fibre is good for your health. It promotes digestion, eases constipation, reduces the risk of heart disease, and keeps you fuller for longer. In breads, cereals, crackers and even soups, look for about 2-5 g of fibre per serving.2
(4) The Type(s) of Grains Conrains
The germ and bran of a grain contain most of its nutrition. “Enriched” and “refined” grains have had their germ and bran removed, taking away their nutritive benefits – not your best choice. And while ‘multigrain’ bread sounds really healthy, all it means it that it’s made of several grains which may or may not have been refined. Bottom line: Choose whole grain!3
(5) Added Sugar
You’ll find this in the ingredients list, also seen in the form of words like dextrose, high-fructose corn syrup, cane crystals etc. Even if the box says “no added sugar”, the food inside may contain high fructose corn syrup, which is equally bad. As a general rule of thumb, avoid foods that contain a lot of added sugar because, beyond its high calorie count, too much sugar affects our health, playing a role in disease and ageing.4
(6) Sodium Content
Sodium can be naturally present in and/or well as added to various food products. Our body uses this mineral to control blood pressure and volume, because of which consuming too much sodium may increase blood pressure. The daily limit is 2300 mg, but it is recommended to reduce our intake to <1500 mg/day.5
Here are some general guidelines to tell you if a food is high or low in fat, saturated fat, salt or sugar:6
|High (g per 100g food)||Low (g per 100g food)|
(7) The Calorie Count
Don’t let this number alone dictate your choice. It’s a good idea to limit your calorie intake to approximately 2000 calories per day, but not at the cost of nutrition. Make sure that the calories are backed by plenty of nutrients, and contains a minimal amount of added sugars, refined grains and trans-fats.7
As a general guideline for food labels:
- 40 Calories: low
- 100 Calories: moderate
- 400 Calories or more: high
(8) Vitamins, calcium, iron and other nutrients
The Daily Value (%) tells you how much of your daily requirement of a nutrient is being met when you consume one serving of the product. This could be helpful when keeping track of how much of that nutrient you still need to consume through the day. A food that contains anywhere between 10-19% of a nutrient’s daily value is considered a good source for it.8
(9) Protein per Serving
The amount of protein that’s been recommended to consume in a day is 0.8 grams per kilogram of body weight. However, as the activity of your daily lifestyle and the intensity of your exercises increase, so do your protein requirements.9
Making healthier choices starts with simply knowing the basics and finding ways to adopt them into your daily routine, until they become habitual. Following these tips will soon turn your trip to the grocery store into an ordinary yet complementary part of a healthier lifestyle.
1. Fernandez ML & West KL. J Nutr 2005, 135(9): 2075-2078.
2. Anderson JW, et al. Am J Clin Nutr 1994, 59(5 Suppl): 1242s-1247s.
3. Kantor LS, et al. J Nutr 2001, 131(2s-1): 473s-486s.
4. Lustig RH, et al. Nature 2012, 482(7383): 27-29.
5. Whelton PK, et al. Circulation 2012, 126(24): 2880-2889.
6. NHS. Food Labels. NHS Choices 2015 [cited]Available from: http://www.nhs.uk/Livewell/Goodfood/Pages/food-labelling.aspx
7. Lichtenstein AH, et al. Circulation 2006, 114(1): 82-96.
8. FDA. A Food Labeling Guide (10. Appendix B: Additional Requirements for Nutrient Content Claims). Guidance for Industry 2013 [cited]Available from: http://www.fda.gov/downloads/Food/GuidanceRegulation/UCM265446.pdf
9. USDA. Protein and Amino Acids. Dietary Reference Intakes 2015 [cited]Available from: http://www.nal.usda.gov/fnic/DRI/DRI_Energy/589-768.pdf