Decoding a nutrition label is easier than assembling Ikea furniture. That’s the good news. The bad news is that even once you’ve decoded them, they’re still tricky to understand. Think: Benedict Cumberbatch’s fast-talking Sherlock on the eponymous British series. That said, learning how to decipher the confusing numbers and terms on the back of packaged foods is a necessary evil when your goal is reaching optimal health.
To save us time at the grocery store and help make sense of nutrition labels once and for all, we enlisted the services of Essence Nutrition’s Monica Auslander (RD, MS, LD/N). The Miami-based registered dietician says she always inspects the ingredients on a package of food before looking at the nutrition facts.
As a general rule, she tells her to clients to steer clear of anything with ingredients they can’t pronounce, as well as artificial sweeteners like sucralose, aspartame, and acesulfame potassium. While the zero-calorie appeal of Splenda may be hard to resist, Auslander says there’s no scientific literature that can prove beyond a reasonable doubt that artificial sweeteners won’t cause cancer or disease. What’s more, regardless of disease-causing potential, there’s evidence suggesting they disrupt our metabolisms and can lead to weight gain and fat storage. I’m pretty sure we can all agree those symptoms are less than ideal.
Okay, so what do we do after scanning a list of ingredients? Fortunately, Auslander walked us through the elements of a nutrition label worth focusing on. Just be sure to check the serving size indicated before getting started, since the nutrition values may not reflect the contents of the entire package but only a small portion (hint: that pint of Ben & Jerry’s you’re digging into during your Netflix binge is actually four servings, not one!).
According to Auslander, added sugars should be everybody’s biggest concern. Whereas naturally occurring sugars, such as those found in plain yogurt, milk, and fruit, are part of a nutritious diet, Auslander says added sugars are deposited as fat and increase the risk of diabetes and heart disease. Common culprits are high fructose corn syrup, glucose, fructose, sucrose, dextrose and maltose, however, there about 50 synonyms for added sugars.
Even natural sources of added sugars like honey and maple syrup have the same negative effects on our bodies as their manufactured counterparts when consumed in excess. So, next time you grab an item with more than zero grams of sugar that’s neither yogurt, milk, or fruit, Auslander suggests thinking twice about your choice. For instance, one cup of store bought granola may contain as much as four packets of sugar, when you could easily make your own sugar-free version by mixing nuts, seeds and unsweetened dried fruit.
What’s more, artificial sweeteners and added sugars aren’t only found in “sweets.” You may be surprised to find them in unexpected places such as packaged soups, salad dressings, and savory sauces. Also worth noting, zero-calorie artificial sweeteners won’t be listed as part of the total sugar value, which is why it’s key to look out for them in the ingredients list.
Auslander isn’t saying you should never have coffee with sugar, or a piece of cake again – but you know – maybe you don’t need a Kit Kat and a cupcake. In terms of numbers, the American Heart Association recommends that women consume no more than six teaspoons (24 grams) of added sugar per day.
It’s not total fats that are problematic, but trans fats and saturated fats, says Auslander. According to the American Heart Association, while small amounts of trans fats occur naturally in certain foods (e.g. milk and meat products), most are man-made by adding hydrogen to liquid vegetable oils to make them more solid. These artificial trans fats are listed as partially hydrogenated oils on processed food labels and must be avoided at all costs. Why? Because they can increase unhealthy cholesterol while lowering healthy cholesterol which in turn ups the risk of cardiovascular disease.
As for saturated fats – keep it under five grams per serving and aim to get your daily intake from dairy, lean meats, nuts, and seeds – not chips and granola bars.
We can’t praise fiber enough for the wonderful ways it helps with bowel health, cholesterol, and regulating blood sugar. Fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, and whole grains all have fiber to help women get their suggested 25 grams per day.
The problem is, manufacturers like to add cheap, synthetic fibers to products like energy bars to fool customers into thinking they’re getting all the health benefits of fiber when really, they aren’t. Chicory root and inulin are two common culprits to avoid.
All carbs aren’t created equal, but, unfortunately, nutrition labels don’t differentiate between simple and complex carbs. “There’s a big difference between white bread and 100% whole wheat Ezekiel bread,” explains Auslander. The latter is a complex carbohydrate which contains our good friend fiber, while the white bread is a simple carbohydrate, meaning it becomes converted into sugar very quickly in our bloodstream. And if you recall – sugar is the number one enemy. Nevertheless, if losing weight is your goal, Auslander suggests cutting back on complex carbs like quinoa and brown rice, as well.
Unless you have high blood pressure, Auslander says you shouldn’t be too preoccupied with your sodium intake. For those who do, however, it’s imperative not to exceed 2,300 mg of sodium per day.
The main takeaway from all of this is if your diet consists primarily of foods without nutrition labels – i.e, fruits, vegetables, nuts, fresh meat, and fish – you don’t really need to worry about any of the above. But because we’re all human, and let’s face it, cookies are hard to resist, remember the following: do your best to avoid foods with trans fats, artificial sweeteners and unpronounceable ingredients, and keep your intake of added sugars to a minimum. Now, that wasn’t so bad… was it?