How to Read Nutrition Labels
Before we dive into how to read these labels let’s talk about the difference between the front and back of the box. (Yes, I'm aware the nutrition labels aren't always on the back of the box)
Food marketing is a multi billion dollar industry with one purpose; to sell you food.
And, they’re REALLY GOOD at it. Large food manufacturers spend a lot of money making sure that the products they make are picked off the shelves, and the way they do that is by understanding how people make their buying decisions, and tailoring their messages to what people are looking for.
It’s helpful as a consumer with a limited understanding of what to look for and a working vocabulary of healthy buzzwords to have the contents of the browseable boxes plastered in bright colors on the front of the box.
Or is it?
See, food marketing is REALLY GOOD at making the things that matter to you very apparent when you’re making your purchasing decisions. But their job is to sell you products, NOT to make sure that the food your buy and eat is the best it can be.
It’s important when we’re shopping for food that we’re mindful of what’s on the front of the box, and are able to determine whether the claims made on the front of the box match the information provided on the back of the box.
Let’s take a look at some Fiber One Chewy Bars PROTEIN!!!!
So, diet research and mainstream media has done plenty to cover the importance of protein to the point where people all over the world who have absolutely no idea what protein even is know it’s important, recognize the word, and associate it with good health.
Now, this is obviously a chocolate bar.
BUT THE POWER OF MARKETING IS INCREDIBLE.
Putting the word Protein in bold letters on the box and emphasizing that it’s got more protein than *net carbs* tells the moderately informed buyer that this is a healthy snack!
And, to that buyer's credit, if the choice was between this fiber one protein bar, and say, a Snickers, there might be more benefit to eating this than said Snickers. But it’s a very incomplete story about the contents of this bar.
To get an accurate picture of what's actually contained in this snack, we need to understand what's on the back of the box.
The first thing we want to look at when we're checking what's in our food is the ingredients list.
A general rule of thumb that I always find helpful when choosing foods is to try to know what you're eating. I.e. if you don't know what something in the ingredients list is, either Google it and find out, or don't eat it.
Now, when you read an ingredient list, it's important to note the order they're placed in. The ingredients are listed in order by volume, meaning the earlier they appear in the list the more present they are in that food.
In our example here, Chickory root extract is the first ingredient on the list.
Now, chickory root is widely regarded as a great source of fiber with no real negative attributes. Good news!
It's also first on the list here, which means there's more fiber in this bar than anything else; which is awesome, right!?
Well, not so fast. See, the ingredients are listed in order by volume, but we know that food manufacturers are willing to spend hundreds of billions of dollars on marketing to make these foods sell, so they're probably looking for ways to make what's on the back of the box appear to be congruent with what's on the front.
If we look a little bit closer at the label, we'll see that yes, chickory root extract might be the largest single ingredient, and that ingredient might be a source of fiber, BUT;
This product contains two artificial sweeteners, and three different types of sugar.
Both Stevia leaf extract and Erythritol are artificial sweeteners.
And sugar, invert sugar, and corn syrup are all sugars.
These companies are smart. By using a variety of different combinations of sugars and sweeteners they appear to be creating products that are healthy, when in reality, it's some clever legalese that's keeping them compliant with regulations while continuing to create and sell products that are in the best interest of very few consumers.
Just remember, companies want to make money, and it's easier to pay a lawyer once to figure out how to drive production cost down than it is to pay for increased production costs once.
That means, as with most things in this life, that the responsibility to know what's going on falls to you.
And that's why we made this course! We want you to know what's up, so you can make the best choices for you.
Now let's look at the final piece on the back of the box; the nutrition facts.
So let's use this opportunity to understand nutrition labels in the context of our protein granola bar friend from Fiber One. This stuff usually makes more sense with some context, so go back and forth to the image if you need to clarify what we're talking about here.
Let's go top to bottom.
The first thing you'll see is the word NUTRITON FACTS.
That's a dead giveaway. They're about to give you facts about nutrition. *Cries laughing at own joke*
The next thing you'll see is the serving size. In this case the serving size is 2 bar, or 33 grams. This is usually the case for any individually wrapped snacks like bars, but for bulk snacks or bags there's usually an estimated number of snacks like "84 carrots" or "approximately 6 potato chips".
This information is important, because the information contained below the serving size is the nutrition facts for that serving size only. If you have 60 chips, you'll need to multiply the other values contained in the rest of the table accordingly to account for the increase in chippage.
Next up we've got our calorie count. In this example our bar contains 130 calories. This is a wonderful estimate that can be off by up to 25% in EITHER DIRECTION depending on a number of factors, most of which were discussed in Nutrition 101 so we won't go into it in too much detail, but the common factor is absorption. Some people absorb more calories from the food they eat, some less. This can be because of different amount of enzymes prevelant in different people, different levels or potency of stomach acids, different levels of function in the digestive tract, stress, sleep etc.
Anyway, we'll get into that in way more depth in a future course, but for now, just understand that there's variability in this figure, and the calorie count they've given you is the best estimate given the methods we currently have to determine a calorie count.
Cool? Moving on.
Next up we've got our fat. It's given as a heading of Total Fat with a couple of subcategories underneath; saturated fat and trans fat.
Companies will often choose to give more or less information on their products depending on what's contained in the products they're selling. On a lot of "health food" snacks you'll see more categories of fat, and they'll often list unsaturated fats, and sometimes even Omega 3's on their nutrition labels if it helps to reinforce the idea of "health" for the consumers buying them.
Most companies will try to remove trans fats from their food wherever possible, because as wrong as the world was about fat contributing to health problems, there's a LOT of evidence to support the detrimental effects of consuming a lot of trans fats.
Now, for those that don't know, the absolute basics of a trans fat is; they're an unsaturated fat (remember from nutrition 101) that's turned into a saturated fat by adding hydrogen. This changes the way it's broken down in your digestive tract, and makes it quite difficult for your body to digest. This difficulty in digestion was appealing when "low fat" was popular for weight loss because difficult to digest = less energy absorbed. This had a HOST of negative side effects, but that's for another time.
So, in this example, there's 6 grams of fat, which if we remember from Nutrition 101 has 9 calories per gram, for a total of 54 calories from fat.
So, our protein bar is 41% fat. Cool, right?
Cholesterol, sodium, other small stuff
For the purposes of this course, just know these are on the label.
These are on the label, because the traditional advice given to help minimize the risk of heart disease and stroke is to try to minimize the amount of fat, cholesterol, and sodium you ingest.
That's why the nutrition labels are in the order they're in. The formula was written at a time when the prevailing nutrition narrative was that "fat is bad", and causes heart disease and stroke.
This narrative has since changed as the understanding of nutrition and heart disease/stroke has improved, but regulatory bodies are very slow to respond to these sorts of changes. Only in the last few years has the Canada's food guide acknowledged that vegetables are more beneficial than cereal in our diets; so, yea. Science is slow, but governing bodies are slower.
We'll be releasing an entire course on dispelling nutrition myths in the coming months (unless it's been months, in which case it's probably already up) and covering how the nutrition science and "health" narratives have changed over the years, so keep an eye out for that!
So! Our carbohydrates label is written as a broad category of Total Carbohydrates, and each bar contains 16g of total carbohydrates. If you remember from Nutrition 101, carbohydrates are split into 3 categories; Sugar, Starch and Fiber. Interestingly though, they've got it split into Dietary Fiber, Total Sugar, and Sugar Alcohols.
We didn't cover sugar alcohols in Nutrition 101, because, well, they're complicated.
The name doesn't make sense, because they're neither sugar, nor alcohol. They're another type of carbohydrate, who's structure mimics that of sugar, without being as easily digested.
It's this combination of sugar-like shape and resistance to digestion that makes sugar alcohols appealing for food manufacturers trying to make their food sweet, and reduce calories.
The difficulty in digestion can have some negative effects on overall "gut health", but these effects are usually avoided by just not eating too many of these sugar alcohols.
Fun fact, while sugar usually contains about 4 calories per gram, sugar alcohols usually contain about 2 because of the difficulty in digestion.
ANYWAY, moving on.
So, upon examining our label we are that of the 16g of total carbohydrates, we're getting:
8g of fiber
2g of sugar
3g of sugar alcohols
For the mathematically inclined among us you might notice that those numbers do not equal 16.
That means, not listed on the label is 3g of starch.
When reading nutrition labels, if you're trying to understand what's in your food it's important to know both what's on the label AND what's not on the label.
So, because of this carbohydrate profile, we can reasonably assume that the carbohydrates contained in these bars will be relatively slow to digest, and not yield too many calories.
That would likely make this a "low glycemic index" food, which means your body will have a difficult time extracting much usable energy from these bars. This could be a really good thing, if you've got your heart set on not absorbing a lot of energy from your food.
AND FINALLY, we get to the bottom of our label, where we find protein.
In this example, our high protein Fiber 1 bar contains 6g of protein, and looking at the ingredients list we can see the most likely source of it is a soy protein isolate.
There's nothing inherently wrong with one type of protein over another, it's just important to know that different types of protein and protein supplements come with more or less "baggage" that will make digesting it more or less challenging.
When selecting a protein source, and especially a protein supplement it's important to make note of how you feel after you drink it.
If you notice that you feel bloated, gassy, have intestinal cramps, loose stools etc, there's a very good chance that the protein that you're ingesting isn't agreeing with you. If you just thought that was normal, it's not, and it's likely either the quality of what you're eating, or the type of protein. So, no need to worry, just try a different type! Some common ones include whey isolate or concentrate, goat's whey, beef protein, pea protein, and soy protein. Typically beef protein, whey isolates and goat whey, and pea protein tend to agree with people a bit better than the others on this list.
Back to the example at hand, we see that our bar contains 6g of protein, 16g or carbohydrates, and 6g of fat.
As you'll remember from the start of this example, we saw that the bars were called Fiber 1 Protein bars, but when we look at the back of the box, we see there's twice as many carbohydrates as there are proteins, and the same amount of fat as protein.
This is why it's very important to understand that the back and front of the box can tell different stories. And while the front of the box may not be lying directly, they are at best telling only a portion of the truth.
Reading nutrition labels is an important part of understanding the contents of your food, and only by understanding the problem you're trying to solve will you be able to solve it.