Just let me begin by saying that the undisputed guru of Nutrition Facts decoding is Jeff Novick, MS, RD, LD, LN... yup, that's A LOT of smart looking letters next to his name. I say this because even though I will attempt to summarize his clear and concise explanation of how to read these confusing labels, there's no possible way that I can duplicate his insanely amusing delivery. He is FUNNY - think stand-up comic, dietitian and nutritionist all rolled into one. On YouTube you'll find dozens of short clips from his speeches but if you're able to get hold of a full-length presentation (you can buy them on DVD) definitely check it out. You'll be rolling in the aisles... in addition to never forgetting the rules for deciphering those Nutrition Facts.
The truth is that we really shouldn't be eating too many packaged, processed foods anyway. Unfortunately not everyone has the time or equipment to dehydrate their own crackers or cook everything from scratch on a daily basis, so it's important to know exactly what's inside those "healthy" products you're spending your hard-earned grocery dollars on.
Understand that the suggested guidelines below are for a normal healthy person who is trying to stay healthy. If you have been diagnosed with chronic disease or instructed to further limit your salt, fat or sugar intake then even these amounts could be on the high side. Always confer with your doctor or medical professional - they're in charge of your health so it's important to keep them in the loop.
- Don't believe ANYTHING on the front of the package, then...
Read the Ingredients
- If there's anything on the list that you don't recognize or can't pronounce - don't buy it.
- Be aware that ingredients are listed in order from most predominant to least BY WEIGHT which can get tricky.
- Stick to WHOLE grains - it must say WHOLE - Durham, wheat and semolina are just fancy names for white flour.
- Keep the sugars and fats way at the bottom of the list, if at all.
- Stay away from tropical oils (like palm and coconut - they are full of saturated fats) or hydrogenated anything.
- Sugars are sneaky. Manufacturers will use several different types so that they are separated on the label and don't show up as the main ingredient. Examples are corn syrup, cane sugar, honey, molasses, fruit juice concentrates, brown sugar, maple syrup, cane juice, etc. Also, understand that anything dehydrated (like evaporated cane juice) will naturally weigh less and end up lower on the list even though the product may still contain a substantial amount. Does it end in "-ose"? ... it's sugar.
- I personally don't pay much attention to calories on their own. After all, I don't count them or worry that I may be eating too many or too few. We NEED calories. At this point because I'm mindful of limiting dietary stimulants like sugar, salt and fat I feel that I can trust my body to let me know when I'm really hungry. The more pertinent question is Where are these calories coming from? As a result, this number is really only important in how it relates to the other information on the label (see below).
- The Calories from Fat number should be NO MORE than 20% of total calories. So... if there are 120 calories in a serving of those crackers, then the Calories from Fat should not be more than 24 - luckily we all have calculators on our phones these days.
- I really like the 20% rule because I feel like it opens my eyes to where the calories are in the products I choose BUT if just reading the word percentage freaked you, there's another quick and easy way to make decisions about the fat content in packaged products (courtesy of PCRM) - Keep the fat content to NO MORE than 2-3 grams per serving.
- Regarding cow's milk... if you are still unsure about removing dairy products from your diet - aside from how it otherwise negatively impacts your health - please be aware that the fat content labeling on milk cartons is very misleading. Here, fat is being measured by weight. Most of milk's weight comes from water so... again, focus on the CALORIES from fat! This also goes for anything else with a high water content like canned soups and salad dressings. How much fat is really in 1% low fat milk?
I pulled these figures from the USDA Nutritional Database which doesn't provide Calories from Fat, so... I had to do a little extra math:
1 cup of 1% lowfat milk: Total calories = 102 Calories from fat (2.38 g x 9 cal/g) = 21.42 21.42 divided by 102 = .21 = 21%
Hmmm... 21% doesn't sound nearly as healthy as 1% does it? And 2% reduced fat milk... 34% fat.
Note: In general, getting 20% of your calories from fat shouldn't necessarily be considered "healthy". It's just a threshold to help assess processed, packaged foods. An apple has 77 calories with 3 grams of fat (or 2% of total calories) - now THAT'S healthy!
- This is salt. It's measured in milligrams and should be NO MORE than equal to the total calories per serving. So if a canned soup has 100 calories per serving then it shouldn't have more than 100 mg of sodium... Whoa! Are you reading that label right? Does it really say 690 mg? 1000 mg? Yup, that's A LOT of sodium. Anyway, good luck with this one. The sodium rule just wiped out nearly all the packaged foods in your supermarket.
- It can't hurt to say it one more time - WHOLE grains. INTACT whole grains are even better -unprocessed foods like rice, millet, farro, wheat berries, barley, quinoa, bulgur, etc. Foods that you actually need to cook! Of course, most of us aren't spending our day making granola and dehydrating our own crackers so... for store-bought crackers, breads and cereals the rule of thumb is that there should be AT LEAST 3 grams of fiber per serving. Fiber is vitally important to our health AND is only found in plant foods. It's what makes you feel full and keeps your digestive tract moving - what goes in must come out!
And that's it! No need to worry about all those %Daily Value numbers or the random nutrients they've chosen to highlight. If you're interested in the math and science behind nutrition facts and want more label-reading pointers, visit Jeff Novick's website or his Facebook page. You'll laugh out loud and learn a lot more about healthy nutrition.