Do you find yourself squinting at the tiny print on a nutritional facts panel while grocery shopping, feeling completely confused? You’re not alone.
Just looking at the nutritional facts panel can often feel like you’re wandering through a complex maze of data. It’s hard to know what to pay attention to and what’s considered a “good” number or a “bad” one. Let’s simplify it and look at what to pay attention to and what to ignore completely.
Seeing Through Nutritional Facts Panels
Manufacturers love nutritional facts panels, and they know how to use them to their advantage. It’s important that you can see through their tricks while grocery shopping. They mostly manipulate the panels to make products seem healthier than they actually are.
One of the most common spots of “tweaking” (a.k.a. manipulation) is the serving size. They’ll often adjust the serving size so the numbers in the panel look “good”. For example, something that looks like a single serving package will be listed as two or three servings on the label. This will make the grams of sugar or calories seem lower than they are. Always look at the serving size before looking any further!
Don’t stress over the trans fat listed on the panel. In Canada, a product can have up to half a gram of trans fat per serving and still round it down to zero on the label. Instead, scrutinize the ingredients for “partially hydrogenated oil”—a clear indicator of trans fat content.
Also, those health claims plastered on the front labels can be deceiving. “Low in sugar”, “high in protein”, etc. don’t mean the food is any healthier than the next product on the shelf without those labels. Instead, they’re often a sign that this food was processed more than others.
But here’s the truth: the most important information lies in the ingredients list, not the numbers on the panel.
What to Pay Attention to on the Nutritional Facts Panel
Really, you can totally skip it entirely. But there are a few things you could keep an eye on.
Fibre vs. Sugar: For those aiming to manage their blood sugar, always compare the fibre content to the sugar content. If there’s significantly more fibre than sugar, and the product also contains protein or healthy fats, it’s likely to help stabilize your blood sugar.
The RDAs…kinda: The Recommended Dietary Allowances (RDAs) are like the nutritional safety nets designed to keep us from falling into nutrient-related illnesses like scurvy or rickets. These guidelines offer the minimum daily intake of essential nutrients required to prevent these deficiency diseases. But most people want their bodies to be healthy, and not just be a little healthier than having scurvy. So it’s worth noting that RDAs are not necessarily the gold standard for optimum health. They represent only the baseline to avoid deficiencies, not the levels needed to thrive.
Instead of the Nutritional Facts Panel, Focus on Ingredients
The ingredients list is where the really good information lives. And if you ever find yourself struggling to locate the ingredients on a package, that’s a clear sign that the product is likely less processed than most. Quality products with minimal processing will have fewer ingredients.
When examining the ingredients, keep the following tips in mind:
Recognizable ingredients: Ideally, everything in the ingredients list should resemble real food. While there may be some preservatives with complex names, such as tocopherols (which is vitamin E), strive for ingredients that are easily recognizable as food.
Ingredient order: Ingredients are listed from most to least, based on quantity in the product. A trick manufacturers often use is adding multiple types of sugar (instead of one) to push sugar down the list. For instance, in baked goods, sugar should ideally be at the top of the list, but they might use multiple types (cane sugar, brown rice syrup, honey) to lower their individual rankings. It’s a sneaky trick, so keep an eye out!
Putting it into Practice
Let’s say you’re trying to find a good quality granola. You notice that there are two kinds of sugar: brown sugar and barley malt extract. This is the time to also look at the nutritional facts panel to see how many grams of sugar vs. fibre. Although it may taste delicious, if it has a lot more sugar than fibre, then it might be a tad sweet for your body.
Lastly, let’s not forget that the healthiest foods are the ones that don’t come with nutritional facts panels or lengthy ingredient lists. We’re talking about those beautiful whole foods: fruits, veggies, nuts, seeds and beans.
Nature’s Fare makes grocery shopping a little easier through their product philosophy. Their strict criteria, which include banning over 500 ingredients, ensure that every product on their shelves is safe for you and your family. They also prioritize non-GMO and organic whenever possible.
Food manufacturers love to keep you confused because a confused shopper is more apt to buy their products. It’s a sad truth. But, armed with a bit of knowledge and knowing that they’re trying to manipulate you, it can be easier to find the best food products for your home.
Lisa Kilgour, rhn is one of Nature’s Fare Markets’ nutritionists and sought-after speaker and educator who helps people heal from diverse and complex health issues. She has spoken at TEDxKelowna and is the author of Undieting: Freedom from the Bewildering World of Fad Diets.
Learn more: lisakilgour.com
Article was published in The Good Life magazine