Decoding the Babble in the Language of Labels


Published: October 21, 2010

For most of us, nutrition labels might as well be written in Latin. A small percentage of us might check the calories and an even smaller group may check the protein, but very few people actually know what every thing on a nutrition label means.

Laura Cunningham/The Observer

Here’s a quick guide to navigating a nutrition label so that you can make wiser choices in the future. Let’s start at the top and work our way down.

Serving Size: No brainer! It’s the amount in a recommended serving. Everything on the nutrition label will be the information for this size, not the entire package.

Servings per container: This is an important one to remember because even if you think that 280 calories is a passable amount, if you ate the whole package you’d really be eating 560 calories! Make sure you are aware of how many servings you are eating.

% Daily Value: Usually based on the recommended 2,000 calorie per day diet, this percentage clues you in on how much of something this product will provide you for the suggested daily value.

Calories: A calorie is just a unit of energy, like miles for distance. Take note of them but don’t base your decisions entirely off of this element.  The more important factors lie below.

Total Fat: This is the total grams of fat per serving. Although fat has a bad rap, polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats are actually really good for you. It’s the next two that you should avoid.

Saturated Fat: Think of the fat that clogs your arteries; this is it. This number should be as close to zero as possible.

Trans Fat: The worst of the worst. Avoid any product that has it at all costs! Trans fat isn’t even a naturally occurring fat; it is a type of fat that was chemically created when processed foods began to come about. This product has zero grams—yay!

Cholesterol: This is something usually only found in animal products—meats and derivatives, like dairy products and eggs. While it should be kept to a minimum, unless you’re eating a cheeseburger a day, it should not be that big of a deal. Just make sure this number isn’t too high.

Sodium: Sodium is a critical electrolyte that our bodies need in order to function. However, many processed foods have way too much sodium in them. This can lead to water retention and “water weight,” as well as more serious heart conditions when you’re older. Lower values are usually better.

Total Carbohydrates: Carbs! Your body uses carbs for instant energy, so to speak. They are broken down faster than proteins and that’s why they are vital, especially in the morning and early afternoon. With the introduction of the Atkins diet, people went nuts trying to count carbs and limit them. Nevertheless, you shouldn’t worry about how many carbs food has.

Fiber: Fiber is your best friend. Learn that now. Fiber expands in your stomach once you eat it, making you feel fuller for longer. It comes in two forms, soluble and insoluble. Soluble means your body can digest it; insoluble means that you can’t. Insoluble fiber keeps a natural body rhythm going, which is very important for proper health.

Sugars: Sugars are best kept to a minimum. The more sugar a food has, the higher it will spike our blood-sugar level and the faster it will make this level crash. Try to find foods with lower sugar levels to maintain a more constant equilibrated blood-sugar level. Simply put, this will keep you satisfied longer. High sugar foods tend to be refined carbs (think white flours and breads), as well as foods that have added sugars.

Protein: Protein is used to build or repair our muscles and fight infections when we’re sick. Protein is also harder for the body to digest, slowing the whole process down and making you feel satiated for longer periods of time. You should try to include some protein into each meal.

Vitamins: Vitamins are, well, vitamins. I don’t know how to explain it much better than this. Obviously, the higher percentage of your daily value that a food has, the better it is.

Overview: The ideal food has an adequate amount of calories for the nutritional value it has. Fats should be kept to a minimum, unless they are poly- or monounsaturated ones.

Trans fats should never be consumed. Cholesterol and sodium should also be consumed in small amounts. The ideal food can have carbs, so long as it has lots of fiber and low sugar. Protein should also be prominent. A perfectly balanced meal will keep hunger at bay for 3 to 4 hours. If your food doesn’t do this for you, take a closer look at what you’re eating and try to see if you can figure it out for yourself.