How to read a nutrition label

How do you read a food package?

It can feel daunting to learn how to decipher food packaging, but here are the key steps:

Ignore the front of the package! This is all advertising gimmicks. Most of this are going to be meaningless buzzwords. Examples are “natural”, “artisan”, “vegan”, “paleo” or “keto” are mostly unregulated and don’t actually mean anything about the quality of the product. One exception to this is the label “organic”, which is regulated- however, unfortunately large companies will put aside a “fine” budget so that they can keep the organic label even though they break regulations. Smaller companies are generally more trustworthy for this reason. On the other hand, some very small farms cannot afford the organic label, but are pesticide free.

When buying meat and seafood, you want to look for the labels “grassfed”, “pasture raised”, and “wild caught”. Grass fed is important when sourcing beef and lamb, because this is their proper diet. Pasture raised doesn’t mean grass fed- pasture raised cows may be fed grain. However, pasture raised also means the animals are living outside, with exposure to sunlight, which is important for their health. Pasture raised is an especially important label in regards to pork, eggs and chickens, which are naturally omnivores who eat bugs in their natural environment. You actually want to AVOID “vegetarian fed” labels for these products because these animals are not actually vegetarian and therefore are not being fed an appropriate diet.

Let’s talk about the back of the package. The caloric content is mostly irrelevant, unless you have a very specific weight gain or loss goal. Most people can eat until full on a balanced diet and your body will self regulate caloric intake. Make sure you check the “serving size” on the back of the label- the amount of calories on the label is for SERVING SIZE- not always for the whole bag! For example, if it says 100 calories on the back, but the serving size of the package is 10, that means that the whole package contains 1000 calories! (100 x 10)

I usually have my clients pay more attend to the macronutrient amounts on the nutrition label- which are protein, fat and carbohydrates. Some people do best on a high protein diet and should be mindful about picking higher protein products, or some people do best on a ketogenic diet and need to be mindful about picking lower carbohydrate products.

What is the difference between “total carbohydrates” and “added sugars”? Total carbohydrates mean how many grams of carbohydrates naturally come in the food. Added sugars means refined extra sugar that is added to the product. For most people, checking for “added sugar” is more important than the total carbohydrates, unless you are doing a therapeutic ketogenic diet where you need to intentionally limit all carbohydrates, even from natural sources. Products with added sugar are generally not healthy for anyone and should be avoided as much as possible.

That leads us to the MOST IMPORTANT part of a food package! The INGREDIENTS LIST. This is where the key to your health lies! ALL ITEMS LISTED ON THE INGREDIENTS LIST SHOULD BE RECOGNIZABLE AS A WHOLE FOOD. All food additives are “food like substances” that have been invented in the last 200 years. These are incompatible with our physiology and over time will contribute to an inflammatory and disease state in the body. Focus on whole foods, regardless of the specific “diet” you are on, and your health will follow!

About the Author
Jen Donovan completely rebuilt her life and career as a result of her experience with severe chronic illness. After finding no answers from conventional medical approaches, she took matters into her own hands and with the help of key mentors, found a path to healing.
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