Nutrition labels are on all foods, and they can be helpful for determining whether a food is more indulgent or more nutritious—but they can also be very confusing. We are here today to tell you some shocking details about what we learned when comparing them… some food for thought before you head to the grocery store.
1. Nutrition label recommendations are not tailored to you.
The footnote of the nutrition label gives suggestions on important nutrients such as fat, cholesterol and fiber, but did you know that this should be taken with a grain of salt? These suggestions are based on a 2,000-2,500-calorie diet, and only a percentage of people have those recommended calorie amounts. If you use nutrition labels to estimate your needs, make sure you consult with a professional on what exactly you need and cater your intake to your own needs—not what the food police suggests.
2. Yogurt can contain more sugar than ice cream.
Yogurt is a healthy way to get probiotics, protein and calcium, but not all are made alike. Not only are there multiple kinds of yogurt, but they all range in one thing super important to your health: sugar. We reviewed major yogurt brands and found that some of them can have as much sugar or more than ½ cup of ice cream! So make sure you not only look at the calories but also the total amount of sugar. This is just one example of how a seemingly healthy food may not be so at all.
3. What seems like a normal serving size may actually be two to three.
There are many foods that are sold in single serving packets that equal one serving, but there are also foods or beverages that look like one serving but aren’t. Food companies know what they’re doing. You find yourself hungry, grab a bottled smoothie, sip it down and look at the label after. Bottled drinks are a great example because we won’t save the liquid calories for later—we’ll drink the whole thing. The good thing is the FDA is making strides to require all food manufacturers reflect serving size requirements. Not only will new food labels reflect what people actually eat, but food packages that contain multiple servings or units will have another label that shows nutrition facts for the whole container. We think Girl Scout cookies should change this ASAP because we all know no one can stop themselves from eating a whole sleeve or box!
4. When it comes to choosing healthy carbs, don’t just look at what’s in bold.
It seems like almost everyone we know is on a low-carbohydrate diet, but we still want to drive home the message that not all carbs are bad, and our nutrition labels can help us out on this one. When it comes to the carbohydrate section of a nutrition label, there is “Total Carbohydrates” in bold with the amount in grams. Right below it are “Dietary Fiber” and “Total Sugars.” There are two things that are key when choosing healthy sources of carbohydrates: food should be high in fiber and low in sugar. So, next time you are choosing a cereal or bread, look not only at your total carbs but also fiber and sugar.
5. What they say is “natural” may not be at all.
According to the Organic and Natural Health Association, in 2015, about ⅓ of American adults thought that natural and organic were the same thing. This is somewhat scary and can be misleading for people who read “natural flavors” in ingredient lists. Foods that are labeled as “natural” must not contain artificial flavors, added colors or synthetic substances. This is great—but what exactly are “natural flavors” anyways? The U.S. Food and Drug Administration defines “natural flavor” as oils, resins or other extracts derived from natural sources like plants, meat or seafood. Processes like heating or fermentation are used to extract the flavor. The function of these products is flavoring, not the addition of any nutritional content.
Natural and artificial flavors are not that different. While chemists make natural flavors by extracting chemicals from natural ingredients, artificial flavors are made by creating the same chemicals synthetically. Both are made in labs, and that’s not to say either is harmful. Though we do recommend that if you’re looking for something as natural as possible, choose foods in their natural state that don’t have additives at all.
6. “Calorie-free” and “fat-free” don’t actually exist.
Your gum may say “zero calories” and your fat-free cookies might say “zero grams of fat,” but are these actually true if you have multiple servings? Probably not. Foods with less than five calories are considered “calorie-free.” Seems insignificant, but if you have a lot of “calorie-free” drinks and “calorie-free” gum or candy, all of these will add up. Another thing that may shock you is a food with ½ gram of fat can actually be recorded at zero grams of fat. If you think about it, that can make a huge difference; just one gram of fat contains nine calories. Eat three servings of “fat-free” foods and you are up to 15-30 calories.
The main thing to take away is that nothing is actually “calorie-free,” and there are always hidden costs to diet foods. We encourage you to not eat because of what the label says, but eat based on your hunger and fullness scale.