While in a grocery store, how many times do you look at the nutrition facts label and try to make sense of all that information? or think about how a particular packaged product is going to affect your health in the short and long term…

Diabetic or not, as a consumer, one needs to make wise choices about the food one eats. This is where food labels come in. They help us make informed decisions towards choosing good nutrition and health. Knowing how to read food labels also assures that we achieve our goal of healthy eating.

While reading labels it’s important to pay attention to:

The serving size: Serving sizes are standardized to make it easier to compare similar products; they are provided in familiar units, such as cups or pieces, followed by the amount of nutrients (carbs, fats, sugar etc.) that that serving would provide you, usually in grams or ounces. The size of the serving on the food package influences the number of calories and all the nutrient amounts listed on the top part of the label, so one needs to know how many servings are there are in the food package. Then ask yourself, “How many servings am I consuming”? – 1/2 serving, 1 serving, or more. For example, one serving may be half a can of soda, a quarter of a cookie, half a chocolate bar or 100 grams (5 tablespoons) of cereal etc.

This information can be misleading since in most cases you may end up consuming more than the serving size (who has just one cookie….really!) mentioned on the label while believing that you only ate the sugars or fat of a single serving.

Next, check total calories per serving and how many servings you’re really consuming if you eat the whole package. If you double the servings you eat, you double the calories and nutrients.  Choose products that are low to moderate in calories per serving i.e., 50 to 200 kcals and avoid, like the plague, anything that is more than 350 kcal per serving.

Per 100g column: The 100g column is the most frequently used.  Use this to compare similar products or to select foods based on specific guidelines. For example, to find a breakfast cereal with the highest fiber content, compare the fiber per 100g of different cereals. The following guidelines will help identify healthier food items based on their nutrient content:

Fat: As a general guide, choose foods with less than 10g total fat per 100g. Choose milk products with less than 2g saturated fat per 100 g (e.g. low fat yoghurt has less than 2g total fat per 100g and Low fat milk has less than 1g total fat per 100g). Healthy products would be with less than 11-13 grams of saturated fat, as little trans fat as possible and low in cholesterol. When the Nutrition Facts label says a food contains “0 g” of trans fat, but includes “partially hydrogenated oil” in the ingredient list, it means the food contains trans fat, but less than 0.5 grams of trans fat per serving. So, if you eat more than one serving, you would be consuming substantial quantities of this ugly fat. So avoid any food product that contains trans fat.

An important thing to remember is that trans fat quantities are usually measured in the raw material by the manufacturers, which is deceptive, because raw materials for processed foods may not contain trans fat by themselves, but the cooking process (such as baking) may convert the benign fats into trans fat. In a perfect world, all nutrient information on a label would be mentioned post processing, but we’re not that lucky.

Sugar:  Pick up low sugar breakfast cereal and yoghurt that have less than 15g sugar per 100g. Choose other foods with less than 10g sugar per 100g.

Sugar goes by many names in labels, many of which you may not recognize. So look out for cane sugar, invert sugar, corn sweetener, dextran, molasses, malt syrup, maltose, evaporated cane juice, high fructose corn syrup, honey, rice syrup, agave nectar, maple syrup etc in the list of ingredients. All of these are basically sugar and therefore will have the same effect on your blood sugar levels.

Avoid drinks with more than 2.5g carbohydrate per 100g. Don’t hate me for saying this but your daily can of soda or carbonated beverage is out the window! (Including the “Zero calories” ones).

When buying packaged food pick up items with nutrients such as: dietary fibre, protein, calcium, iron, vitamins and other nutrients you need every day. Choose foods with more than 6g fibre per 100g. On the other hand avoid excesses of any packaged or processed foods including those items that are “fortified” labelling.

Salt/sodium:  Choose food with low sodium content i.e., less than 120mg per 100g and avoid food that has more than 600mg per 100g.

% Daily Value:  The % Daily Value (DV) tells you the percentage of each nutrient in a single serving, in terms of the daily recommended amount. As a guide, if you want to consume less of a nutrient (such as saturated fat or sodium), choose foods with a lower % DV — 5 percent or less. If you want to consume more of a nutrient (such as fiber) seek out foods with a higher % DV — 20% or more.
Remember that the information shown in this column of the label is based on 2,000 calories a day diet. You may need to consume less or more than 2,000 calories depending upon your age, gender, activity level, and whether you’re trying to lose, gain or maintain your weight.

The bottom line is that the more manufacturers reduce the sinful ingredients from the processed food items, the worse it tends to taste. For example – Higher fiber in a cookie will make it soggy so it needs more fat to make it crisp. Oats was a tough sell till fruity and sugary flavors were introduced. Also, if you’re anything like me, the zero calorie sweetener never really tastes the same as sugar, does it?!!As long as food choices of consumers are based primarily on taste and labeling laws open to manipulation, manufacturers will continue to walk the tight rope of selling their products versus complete transparency.

Look at the list of Ingredients.

A good rule of thumb is to scan the first three ingredients, because they are the largest part of what you’re eating.

All food packages include a list of ingredients but they are not always found as part of the nutrition information panel. Ingredients are listed in order of quantity from largest to smallest. Sugar, fat and salt are often listed in the ingredient list under different names.  Therefore, healthier ingredients can be listed at the top, and sugar (by any other name…is still sugar) further down. So a product loaded with sugar, doesn’t necessarily show it as one of the top ingredients.

If the first ingredients include refined grains, some sort of sugar or hydrogenated oils, you can be pretty sure that the product is unhealthy. Instead, try to choose items that have whole foods listed as the first three ingredients.

Another good rule of thumb is if the ingredients list is longer than 2–3 lines, you can assume that the product is highly processed.

If you or someone in your family has food allergies to gluten, lactose, nuts etc, food labels are your first step in avoiding potentially serious situations.

So, before you drop a package in your grocery basket read it before you eat it!