Nutrition Facts Labels – Breaking the Code

Eating WFPB is not as mysterious as many people would think. A real benefit is to know exactly what we are eating: beans, cauliflower, mango, arugula, rolled oats, etc. No question, here is what we are eating! None of these fruits or vegetables have a Nutrition Facts label – what we see is what we are eating.

Sometimes, on a WFPB diet or if transitioning to a WFPB diet, we do include foods in our diet that have nutrition labels. It could be a bag of frozen vegetables, a can of beans, tomatoes, or artichokes, a jar of olives, a box of pasta, vegetable broth, a loaf of bread, or a jar of pasta sauce. As the holidays approach, it could be a can of pumpkin or a bag of dried cranberries. Sometimes in a pinch for time, we may have a vegan frozen dinner such as enchiladas or a beans and rice dish, a vegan pizza, or a box of vegetable soup.

When we eat these foods, exactly what we are eating may be difficult to know.  All of these products have Nutrition Facts labels, but do we really understand what those labels are telling us about the contents?

  • When conducting grocery shopping tours or counseling a client on how to read nutrition labels on packages, I like to refer to the guidelines of Jeff Novick, RD. Some of his thoughts on reading Nutrition Facts labels are below.
  • Claims on the front of the package can be misleading. Many times, however, it is not what is said on the front of the box or can, but what is NOT said that is worrisome. A product may say “fat-free” on the front of the box, but what more likely is NOT said is that it is full of sugar and calories, and therefore can be very misleading. Consider the front of the package only as an advertisement to encourage us to buy their product. Don’t decide to by a product solely on what the front of the package says.
  • Nutrition Facts labels and Ingredients Lists on packages are regulated by law. Understanding labels and lists is how to uncover the truth. A product may advertise, “trans fat-free” on the front of the package, but the ingredients list will reveal the rest of the story about other artery-clogging fats like palm oil and coconut oil in the product that were mysteriously not mentioned on the front of the package.
  • Designated serving sizes can be mis-leading. Do you consider 3/4 cup of pasta a serving size? Information on Nutrition Facts labels and Ingredients Lists are based on the serving size listed.
  • The calories per serving need to be multiplied by the amount consumed. If the pasta box lists a serving size as 3/4 cup and you eat 1 1/2 cups, everything on the label must be multiplied by two.
  • The percentage of calories from fat is not listed on the Nutrition Facts label. You need to do the math. Take “Total Fat” x 9 (number of calories per gram) divided by “Calories” x 100. Example: Product lists 8 calories total fat x 9 (calories per gram) = 72. 72 divided by 230 (calories in one serving of the product) = .31 x 100 = 31% fat.
  • Fats are confusing and have many different names. Avoid saturated and hydrogenated fats and tropical oils commonly found in Ingredients Lists, to include coconut, lard, butter, cocoa butter, palm oils, shortening, margarine, and chocolate. Polyunsaturated fats include safflower, soybean, corn, and sesame, and monounsaturated fats such as olive and canola are less harmful. Make sure, however, that the percentage of calories from fat of the product is 20% or less. All oils are high in calories – all have approximately 120 calories per tablespoon.
  • The Daily Value listing of sodium is too high. It is based on government guidelines not to exceed 2300 mg per day, or 1 teaspoon. A general rule of thumb is to limit the sodium listed to no more than the number of calories per serving – 100 calories/100 mg of sodium.
  • Sweeteners in products go undercover with many aliases. They include corn syrup, high fructose corn syrup, molasses, malted barley, honey, terms ending in “ol” including sorbitol or maltitol, or “ose” like fructose or dextrose. Try to limit these refined sugars to no more than 5% of total calories (not to exceed 2 tablespoons per day). Do more detective work by looking at the Ingredients List to learn the source of “added sugars.” Since ingredients are listed in descending order by weight, sugars listed lower down on the list are better for your waistline. Divide the milligrams of sugar shown on the Nutrient Label by four to find out how many teaspoons the product has per serving (i.e., 8 mg sugar = 2 teaspoons).
  • Don’t judge a loaf of bread by its color. Just because it is brown doesn’t mean it is whole wheat. Again, find the facts on the Ingredients List. It may include enriched flour, wheat flour, or white flour, all of which are refined flours that have had vitamins and minerals removed and often replaced with synthetic chemicals. Carmel or other coloring may be added to give these processed flours the appearance of whole wheat. The ingredients list must say “whole wheat” which means it will contain all parts of the wheat – the bran, germ, and endosperm. Look for at least 3 grams of fiber per serving, which will be a clue that the product is partially if not all whole grain.

We know the healthiest foods don’t have Nutrition Labels. But when we do include ingredients that come from a box or can when cooking, it is good to know exactly what we are buying and eating when we decode Nutrition Facts labels on the packaging.

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