The nutrition facts label found on packaged foods is a wellspring of information. If used properly, it can help you make wiser nutrition decisions. Armed with the right knowledge, the information found on those labels can serve as your guide as you navigate the grocery aisles.
Unfortunately, those little things don't come with an instruction manual. Reading them is often further complicated by the overwhelming amount of numbers and percentages or the distracting health claims spattered across the package.
Below are five of the most common mistakes we all make (nutrition pros included) and how to correct them.
- Falling for the Health Halo Claim Du Jour. This one is especially tricky. Savy marketing by food companies is to blame for this one. Remember when the Atkins Diet was all the rage? Many products had claims which could be seen a million miles away boasting the number of grams of protein the product contained. What they weren't proudly proclaiming was the ridiculous amount of added sugar and sodium and the dismal amount of fiber, vitamins, and minerals many of these foods contained. I see it all the time in the grocery aisles: candy with cholesterol free labels. It's still candy, being cholesterol free did not turn it into a healthful food. Or my current favorite, gluten free potato chips; last time I checked fried food was not the best option for heart health whether gluten free or not. Don't get caught up in the hype. Choose minimally processed foods without added sweeteners and excess sodium.
- Not reading the ingredients list. I am especially guilty of this one. I have a love for veggie patties. That love coupled with this mistake left me incredibly disappointed a few weeks ago. I was so wrapped up in the awesome vitamin and mineral content, high fiber, reputation of the brand, and the name (spinach was in the title) I didn't bother to check the ingredient list. Unfortunately for me it contained oats, something I am sensitive to. I couldn't return them and I couldn't eat them. Major waste. This incident reminded me how important it is to read the ingredients list. If you are sensitive to a particular ingredient make sure to read the ingredients list. Want to know if that blueberry treat actually has blueberries in it? Check the ingredient list. Does that snack say it contains no trans fats per serving? Check the list to make sure it doesn't have any partially hydrogenated oil; what that claim may really mean is it does not have enough trans fats per recommended serving to be required by law to tell us about (but if we go over that amount we may have taken in quite a bit of trans fats.)
- Focusing on only one nutrient. Perhaps you are focused on minimizing your amount of fat for some reason, so you always make sure to check the fat grams, but fat free doesn't mean no salt added and no added sugar. Just like no added sugar does not mean low calorie. And cholesterol free foods do not necessarily contain fiber, a nutrient that is super important for reducing high blood cholesterol numbers. It is the complete package that determines if a food is beneficial to your health. Consider the whole picture to determine if a food is the right choice for you.
- Forgetting to multiply the nutrient amounts (calories, grams of fat, carbohydrates, and protein, and milligrams of cholesterol and sodium) by the number of servings you ate or plan to eat. Unless otherwise stated the numbers and amounts you see on the label are based on the suggested serving size not the full package. So if 5 crackers is the serving size, but I eat an entire sleeve, which is 30 crackers, I need to multiply everything by 6. What was meant to be an 80 calorie snack just became a 480 calorie snack. What I thought was only 140 mg of sodium was actually 840mg, more than half my sodium recommendation for a day. Check the serving size; either stick to that amount and no more or if you do plan to go over make sure to multiply to find out how many calories and how much fat, sugar, sodium, fiber, etc you are actually eating.
- Not reading it. They say ignorance is bliss. And maybe sometimes we don't need to know or we just don't care in that moment but not reading the nutrition fact label can leave us wondering why despite our best intentions the number on the scale won't budge or why we have an allergic reaction every time we eat a seemingly innocent food. The cure for this one is simple: just read it.
I can't leave without making this last statement: it is also important to choose foods without nutrition facts labels. Maybe even more important than reading labels properly, is eating plenty of foods that don't have labels. These are often the healthiest options. What do I mean? When was the last time you saw fresh produce (other than the clam shells of salad greens) with a nutrition facts label? Exactly my point. That stack of apples doesn't need a label, neither does that bunch of collard greens. Choosing unprocessed foods, many of which do not contain nutrition facts labels (of course there are exceptions) is one of the easiest ways to make healthy food decisions.