An Easy Approach to Food Labels
Photo: Maya Visnyei
By Tosca Reno
What’s the difference between a serving and a portion?
A serving is a quantity of food suitable for one person. A portion, on the other hand, is the amount of food you choose to eat, whether it is a slice of cake or the whole thing. You’re better to stick to servings if you don’t want to overdo the calories.
The serving size is always printed on a nutrition label. Did you know the recommended serving size of oatmeal is only half a cup? Many of us make the mistake of pouring out an amount of food using only our eyeballs or our stomach to gauge what is enough. In most cases, it’s way too much. Stick to servings, not guesstimated portions.
Why does a food like oatmeal have sugar listed on the nutrition label when it is only oatmeal with no added sugar?
This is a labeling nightmare! Plain, old-fashioned oatmeal still contains the word sugar on the label because carbohydrates and sugars have erroneously been lumped together. It would be clearer if “added sugars” were specified on the label, but food companies would likely never do that. This puts the onus on you, the consumer, to know that carbohydrates from whole grains and fruits and vegetables convert to healthy sugars in the body while refined sugars do not. Refined sugar is far more dangerous because it is a man-made sugar that actually tears the body down. Conversely, complex carbs (such as those found in oatmeal) come from whole foods, delivering important nutrients including enzymes, fiber, minerals and vitamins, thus buffering the effect of glucose in the body. It pays to inspect this part of the nutrition label carefully and compare it to the ingredient list so you know whether or not you are getting those important complex carbs. When scanning the label, keep in mind that ingredients are listed in descending order of weight, so whatever appears first makes up more of the product. This is one of the reasons I often look for the smallest amount of ingredients on the label — one or two is best. Oatmeal, for example, only has one ingredient: whole-grain oats.
I don’t have time to read food labels and I don’t understand what I am reading anyway. What am I supposed to do?
Here is my oh-so-simple rule for adding food labels to the mix: If there is a long list of ingredients and you can’t read all of them, put it down and walk over to the produce aisle. There, you will find food items without nutrition labels. Just pick up that orange and give a big sigh of relief. I work hard at buying foods that have minimal ingredient lists for the simple reason that I don’t have time to figure out what lurks in processed food.
What are saturated, trans- and other fats? Should I eat any of them?
Fat has become a dangerous word because no one knows about good versus bad fats. Truthfully, even a good fat can be bad if it is not well handled, sourced or stored. Olive oil, for example, is a healthy fat but if it is over-processed, not stored in a dark bottle or a cool place or is heated too high, then all the good of the oil goes up in smoke (and the oil becomes rancid, which is no good for you). Use caution and handle fats with care. But do beware of the bad guys here. Synthetic trans-fats and hydrogenated oils do not exist in nature (though a small amount of trans-fat is found naturally in some animal-based foods such as milk and meat). Man has created these and both do terrible damage to the trillions of cells living in you. No man-made fat should ever slip between your lips. Go for good healthy fats and treat them with respect.
I always see calories printed on the nutrition label, but I’m skeptical about calorie counts. How can you really count them, anyway?
It is wise to be skeptical about calorie counts because there is no good way to count them unless you are a scientist. We can attempt to keep a rough count of the total number of calories we consume on a daily basis, but you have to be very honest and very methodical about the counting. Most people I know who count calories only end up becoming very stressed out.
Additionally, calories are not all the same. The calories from an apple are not the same as the empty calories from a donut and they don’t do the same things in the body, either. Whereas the apple will sustain and nourish you, contributing to overall health, the donut will detract from health and will break your body down during digestion.