When you want to start living healthier, you need to consider a lot of things. For example – you need to ration your ice creams and chocolates, start exercising, regulate your sleep timings, and inculcate various other habits. However, one thing that most of us might miss out on is smart shopping.
During grocery shopping, you simply tend to pick out foods that seem healthy to you. What you don’t bother to do is check the ‘nutrition facts’. You need to be really careful while choosing from a wide range of fat-free, sugar-free and preservative-free options that are available nowadays.
It is easy to turn a blind eye to these and just look for (and usually fall for) items that have low calories, low sugar, low saturated fat, zero cholesterol, high fibre, and so on.
Most of the time, these are nothing but misleading labels to fool the customers into thinking that the product is healthy. Not everything written in BOLD on the cover should be believed. It is really important to turn the box or rotate the bottle and check the content and nutritional facts of the food item since these items could be doing more harm than good. For instance, the low-fat items – when you eat something that is full-fat, you at least stop after you have taken a bite or two as the fat makes you feel fuller. Whereas, when you eat the low-fat variety, you tend to eat it in larger quantities, because at the back of your mind you think they are not eating much fat. Also, in order to make up for the loss of taste that fat gives, these foods have added sugar and salt which are much more harmful than certain healthy fats. Furthermore, a lot of Low-fat and fat-free food items also contain chemical-laden additives such as colouring and preservatives, which can be really harmful.
If you care about your health, learn to read food labels. We know it can be tricky and confusing to understand. Here, bon happetee brings you a few quick tips to read food labels and make shopping for the right foods a whole lot easier.
1 – Check the serving size and the number of servings
We are often misled into believing that a product does not have too many calories, fat or sugar because we often miss reading the most important information on the food label: ‘serving size’. The nutrition information you read is printed for a specific serving size and the packet may have more than 1 serving. Food companies will sometimes print a label for an unrealistic serving size to mislead the consumer into thinking the product is not very bad after all.
If you are consuming exactly a serving of the product, then you are consuming the calories, fat, etc., exactly as labelled. However, if you consume 2 or 3 servings, you will have to multiply the given information accordingly. For example, a regular bottle of any standard ketchup has a serving size of 1 tbsp. i.e., 17 grams, and includes 23 servings per container. So, if you are consuming 3 tablespoons each time you are essentially having 3 servings. When you are buying the ketchup you might think that you are consuming let’s say 4 gms of sugar per serving each time, but if you are consuming 3 tablespoons you are actually taking in 12 gms of sugar. A lot of times when food companies want to hide the excess sugar or salt in their foods they will just display the information for smaller serving sizes. Another common example is chips. Most chips packages have a nutrition facts label printed for one ounce of chips which is approximately 12-20 chips. How many of us open a bag of chips and eat less than 20?
- Servings per container
Servings per container are mentioned right under the serving size and tell you how many servings that packet, jar or bottle has. Quite simple. So keep in mind if you are consuming an entire bag of chips, you are consuming much more calories, fats and sodium than the amounts on the nutrition label. Do the math!
3. Calories – Pay attention to the type of calories
More than the number of calories, it is important to understand where these calories are coming from – all calories are not created equal. Beware of calories from carbs/sugars, rather than those from fats.
You will come across calories from fat in each serving. This is just an additional piece of information, and need not be added to the total calories again, since total calories already contain the calories from fat. Each gram of carb or protein amounts to 4 calories and each gram of fat amounts to 9 calories.
4. Quick guide to % Daily Value
The % Daily Value (DV) tells you the percentage of each nutrient in one serving, in terms of the daily recommended amount. The %DV is based on a 2000 calorie diet. To simplify this, a food item with a 10% DV of fat provides 10% of the total amount of fat a person should consume if he/she is consuming a 2000 calorie diet.
As a guide, choose foods with a lower % DV of saturated fats, cholesterol, sodium and higher % DV of fibre, iron, calcium and vitamins.
5%DV or lesser is low and 20% DV or more is high.
5. Nutrients without a %DV
Typically, trans-fats, sugars and protein do not have a % DV mentioned on the food label.
There are no recommended dietary allowances established for trans-fats and sugars and hence there is no %DV that can be printed. Trans-fats are best avoided completely.
In 2014, WHO recommended a 25g (6 teaspoons) sugar intake per day for healthy individuals who regularly work out. Most processed food items out there have a lot of sugar and are best avoided. Sweetened fruit flavoured yoghurts, ready to eat flavoured breakfast cereals etc. have about 10-20g sugar per serving. Sodas like coca cola and Pepsi have 40g sugar per can. If we go by WHO recommendations then a single can of soda contains almost 2 days of your sugar requirement.
It is ideal to check the sugar content of food items before consuming them and keep in mind the sugar content is listed for one serving. Do the math if you are eating more than one serving at one time.
Protein intake is not a current public health concern as per scientific evidence and hence a %DV is not required to be listed for protein unless the food item claims to be ‘high protein’ or is meant for children under 4 years of age.
6. Fats and Cholesterol
Excessive consumption of fats is often linked to the risk of blood pressure and heart diseases. But not all fats are bad fats. Saturated fat, often termed as “bad fat” does not necessarily need to be cut out completely. However, make sure that you choose products, that have a low amount of saturated fats.
The same applies to trans fats (which you should avoid). Trans fats are responsible for increasing body fat, hardening of arteries, and causing various obesity-related health conditions. The mono and polyunsaturated fats are the good fats, considered very crucial in maintaining the heart health.
7. Sodium (mostly Salts)
This is the most important ingredient to watch out for. As per most dietary guidelines your body needs no more than 2500mg of sodium in a day. Since salt is a natural preservative, it is usually found in high quantities in packaged foods. The low-fat food items usually have added salt in order to make up for the loss of taste.
Excessive sodium consumption can lead to swelling, water retention and other problems. People with hypertension are advised to restrict sodium intake.
8. Vitamins and minerals
Don’t just focus on limiting the fats, sugars and sodium, but also make sure to choose foods that have high amounts (more than 20% DV) of dietary fibre, calcium, iron, and vitamins.
9. Reach for healthy wholesome carbs
Most food items will have total carbohydrates value listed followed by the dietary fibre and sugars. Just checking the %DV of total carbohydrates is not enough. Look for food items that are high in fibre and low in sugar. Sugars provide ‘empty calories’ which means that they only provide calories and insignificant or no amount of other nutrients. Also, keep in mind that the sugar values mentioned on the nutrition label are a sum of natural sugars from ingredients as well as added sugars. Check the ingredient list to know specifics about added sugars. Other common names for added sugars are sucrose, glucose, fructose, corn syrup, high fructose corn syrup, maltodextrins, maltose, dextrose, fruit concentrates, honey and maple syrup.
10. The 2 deadly ones to watch out for
Foods with anyone of these 2 ingredients should be avoided at all costs.
- Trans Fats (Hydrogenated Oils)
11. Don’t get carried away by ‘all-natural’
‘All-natural’ does not mean ‘all-healthy’. In fact, it does not mean much at all because the FDA does not define what ‘all natural’ should mean. As far as there are no artificial flavours, food colours or synthetic substances added, a food company can print ‘all natural’ on their product. However, mind you, these foods can have very high amounts of sugar or salt added as preservatives, these are natural but not healthy!
12. Contains whole wheat / Multigrain
Only because the bread you buy contains whole wheat does not mean that it won’t have high amounts of refined flour. Also, do not judge by the colour, some brown bread often have an added caramel colour and sugar to make it brown and make you think it is made of whole wheat. It isn’t! Look for the words ‘100% whole wheat’ on the bread or crackers you buy.
Sugar-free only means that the product does not have any added ‘sugar’. However, the ingredients used to make the food product will contribute some natural sugars. Often, companies use high amounts of dates, high fructose corn syrup, maltodextrins etc. to make the product taste sweet. Some of these, when consumed regularly, can be worse than plain sugar. Yes, how else does one make ‘sugar-free sweets and desserts’?
Many food items have been marketed as ‘fat-free’ ever since fat consumption got associated with heart problems and obesity. Fat-free snacks are every weight watcher’s heaven. But we implore you to not fall into this marketing ploy head first. Fat-free does not mean ‘low calorie’. If you ever compared a fat-free version and a full-fat version of many food items, the calorie content is almost at par because the fat-free version will have a higher amount of sugars to keep the product palatable. If the fat-free product truly is also low calorie and does not have high amounts of sugar, it may have higher amounts of salt to appeal to your taste buds.
Furthermore, FDA defines fat-free and sugar-free as less than ½ g of fat and sugar respectively, per serving. Companies may print nutrient information for an unrealistically small serving size and call it fat-free to lull consumers into buying it.
15. Zero trans fats:
Ideally, your trans fat intake should be zero. However, food items slapped with a ‘zero trans fats’ label can have up to 0.5g of trans fats per serving. Instead of believing the ‘zero trans fats’ label, look at the ingredient list; if it has hydrogenated oils or shortening, put it back on that shelf!
16. Cholesterol free
Many vegetable oils advertise themselves as cholesterol free. Well of course they are! Cholesterol is only found in animals and not in plants, so you don’t have to buy that expensive cholesterol free vegetable oil. Cheaper and plain old peanut oil will do.
It may take a while for you to get a hang of this, but once you have mastered this skill, you will surely be choosing foods that are not only healthy but also beneficial. Hope this information helps you in your weight loss journey.
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