The Nutrition Facts table is on the side of most packaged foods. It’s often found close to the ingredient listing.
The purpose of it is to help consumers make better nutrition decisions. When people can see the number of calories, carbs, sodium, etc. in food, they should be able to eat better, right?
Whether you like the Nutrition Facts table or not, let’s make sure you get the most out of it, since it’s here to stay!
Here’s my four-step crash course on reading the Nutrition Facts table.
Step 1: Serving Size
The absolute most important part of the Nutrition Facts table is to note the serving size. Manufacturers often strategically choose the serving size to make the rest of the table look good. Small serving = small calories/fat/carbs. So, it's tricky.
All the information in the table rests on the amount chosen as the serving size. And, since every manufacturer chooses their own, it’s often difficult to compare two products.
In Canada, in the next few years (between 2017-2022), serving sizes will be more consistent between similar foods. This will make it easier to compare foods. The new labels will also have more realistic serving sizes to reflect the amount that people eat in one sitting, and not be artificially small.
Let’s use an example - plain, unsalted walnuts from Costco.
As you can see, right under the Nutrition Facts header is the serving size. That is a ¼ cup or 30g. This means that all the numbers underneath it are based on this amount.
FUN EXPERIMENT: Try using a measuring cup to see exactly how much of a certain food equals one serving. You may be surprised at how small it is (imagine a ¼ cup of walnuts).
Step 2: % Daily Value
The % Daily Value (%DV) is based on the recommended daily amount of each nutrient the average adult needs. Ideally, you will get 100% DV for each nutrient every day. This is added up based on all of the foods and drinks you have throughout the day.
NOTE: Since children are smaller and have different nutritional needs if a type of food is intended solely for children under the age of 4, then those foods use a child’s average nutrition needs for the %DV.
The %DV is a guideline, not a rigid rule.
You don’t need to add all of your %DV up for everything you eat all day. Instead, think of anything 5% or less to be a little; and, anything 15% or more to be a lot.
NOTE: Not every nutrient has a %DV. You can see it's missing for things like cholesterol, sugar, and protein. This is because there isn't an agreed "official" %DV for that nutrient. The good news is that the new Nutrition Facts tables will include a %DV for sugar. Keep your eyes out for that.
Step 3: Middle of the table (e.g. Calories, fat, cholesterol, sodium, potassium, carbohydrates, and protein)
Calories are pretty straight forward. Here, a ¼ cup (30g) of walnuts has 200 calories.
Fat is bolded for a reason. That 19g of fat (29% DV) is total fat. That includes the non-bolded items underneath it. Here, 19g of total fat includes 1.5g saturated fat, (19g - 1.5g = 17.5g) unsaturated fat, and 0g trans fat. (Yes, unsaturated fats including mono- and poly-unsaturated are not on the label, so you need to do a quick subtraction).
Cholesterol, sodium, and potassium are all measured in mg. Ideally, aim for around 100% of potassium and sodium each day. It's easy to overdo sodium, especially if you grab pre-made, restaurant foods, or snacks. Keep an eye on this number if sodium can be a problem for you (e.g. if your doctor mentioned it, if you have high blood pressure or kidney problems, etc.).
Carbohydrate, like fat, is bolded because it is total carbohydrates. It includes the non-bolded items underneath it like fiber, sugar, and starch (not shown). Here, 30g of walnuts contain 3g of carbohydrates; that 3g are all fiber. There is no sugar or starch. And as you can see, 3g of fiber is 12% of your daily value for fiber.
Proteins, like calories, are pretty straight forward as well. Here, a ¼ cup (30g) of walnuts contains 5g of protein.
Step 4: Bottom of the table (e.g. vitamins & minerals)
The vitamins and minerals listed at the bottom of the table are also straightforward. The new labels will list potassium, calcium, and iron. Yes, potassium will drop from the middle of the table to the bottom, and both vitamins A & C will become optional.
Manufacturers can add other vitamins and minerals to the bottom of their Nutrition Facts table (this is optional). And you'll notice that some foods contain a lot more vitamins and minerals than others do.
I hope this crash course in the Nutrition Facts table was helpful. While you can take it or leave it when it comes to making food decisions, it’s here to stay. And it will change slightly over the next few years.
Do you have questions about it? Have you seen the new labels with a %DV for sugar? If so, leave me a comment below.
Recipe (walnuts): Delicious and Super-Easy Walnut Snack
8 walnut halves
4 dates, pitted
Make a "date sandwich" by squeezing each date between two walnut halves.
Serve & enjoy!
Tip: Try with pecans instead
Many nutrition professionals generally advise that a healthful, balanced diet can provide most people with the nutrients essential for good health.
Fruit and vegetables naturally contain a number of beneficial nutrients, such as vitamins, minerals, fiber, antioxidants and other biologically active components - or phytochemicals.
In fact, it has been documented that consumption of at least 5 servings per day is linked with a reduced risk of various diseases, including several cancers and heart disease.
However, with the overall lack of nutrient bioavailability due to things like:
It’s no wonder that many of us are indeed lacking in a number of key nutrients that we once came by very easily. We simply aren’t eating our Grandmother’s fruits & veggies anymore!
Do you have any of THESE health issues right now?
(You may be surprised to learn that there may be a connection to certain symptoms with actually having a nutritional deficiency!)
Got muscle twitches or leg cramps?A nutrient that is commonly found in plant foods, but also commonly lacking in our diets due to all of the reasons for poor bioavailability, is magnesium.
This talented mineral is involved as a cofactor for a range of biochemical reactions in the body, is involved in the structural development of bone, and plays a role in nerve impulse conduction, maintaining a normal heart rhythm and muscle contraction.
(helloooo dark chocolate!!)
Hormonal issues causing chaos? Maybe your fats aren’t so good. FYI, while hormonal imbalances are another topic entirely, here are some of the most common signs and symptoms of hormone imbalances:
Hormonal imbalances are complex, multi-faceted issues, meaning they are caused by a combination of factors such as your diet, medical history, genetics, stress levels and exposure to toxins from your environment.
Again, another topic altogether, but one of the major contributors to hormonal imbalances includes your diet - and specifically a lack of fats. Good fats, that is!
Hormones are built on fat, and your body can only use the building blocks you give it.
Think wild-caught salmon, hemp seeds, coconut oil, avocados, and a special mention of GLA (gamma linoleic acid) found in evening primrose and borage oils -- studies have shown that supplementing with GLA can support healthy progesterone levels.
How’s your nail health? Maybe not as good as you think! Here are some signs to watch for:What's considered ‘normal’ differs in everyone, but generally, fingernails should be clear, smooth, pliable and peachy-pink in color.
Ever noticed white spots on your nails?
While this is most often due to mild trauma (like banging your nail against something hard), it can also indicate a zinc deficiency.
Horizontal lines, ridges and spoons
What about horizontal lines or ridges across your nails?
These are sometimes called Beau's lines and may be due to a zinc deficiency but could be indicative of low iron or anemia. Nails can be spoon-shaped at the tips with iron deficiency as well.
Dry, brittle and peeling
Dry, brittle, thin or peeling nails?
Could just be dry nails, but possibly also…
Ever noticed the lighter-toned half-moons at the base of your fingernail? Or perhaps you haven't noticed them because they're absent all together!
This is usually due to a Vitamin B12 deficiency and is also associated with anemia.
So, how do we get all the nutrients we need, and improve our health?
Even with striving to maintain a healthful, balanced diet, it’s apparent that many of us may not be getting all the nutrients we need for optimal health.
Things that contribute to acquiring nutrient deficiencies:
As always, getting your full complement of nutrients is encouraged through whole food sources, but sometimes our diet just isn’t meeting all of our needs and this is where supplementation may be necessary.
For better nutrient bioavailability, there are certain food pairings that increase the uptake and absorption of one or more nutrients = synergistic effect.
For example, pairing sources of Vitamin C with sources of Iron to increase the uptake and absorption of the Iron.
My favorite way to do this is in a fresh, vibrant spinach salad with juicy strawberries!
Spinach-Strawberry Salad with Berry Vinaigrette
8 cups baby spinach leaves (organic preferable)
4 cups strawberries, fresh sliced (organic preferable)
½ red onion, thinly sliced
½ cup walnuts, chopped & toasted (or other fave nut or seed, lightly toasted)
Dairy option: crumbled goat cheese
Dressing - in a small bowl, whisk together the following:
½ avocado or virgin olive oil
¼ cup balsamic (or raspberry-infused wine vinegar for a lighter, less sweet option)
2 Tbsp honey (unpasteurized preferable)
Pinch smoked paprika
Salt & pepper to taste
In a large bowl, gently toss all salad ingredients.
Pour dressing over top and toss gently to just combine.
If using, sprinkle goat cheese over the top of salad or just on individual plates as it can get “mashed into” the salad very easily.
Spinach does not generally keep very long and becomes wilted quickly. This salad is best served immediately.
If you’re trying to eat healthier, you already know you should be including lots of fruit, vegetables, lean protein, and whole grains.
But when you step into a grocery store, things get a bit more complicated. The majority of store shelves are crammed with a tempting assortment of pre-packaged and convenience foods.
So, how do shoppers know which foods are healthy options?
Most people turn to nutrition and health claims found on food packaging labels to help them decide which products to pick and which to skip.
You may think you’re doing a good thing adding “healthful” sounding foods to your cart - but in reality, you may end up taking in way more calories, sugar, and unhealthy ingredients than you intend!
This is because most product nutrition claims don’t mean a heck of a lot when it comes to the actual healthfulness of a food.
Healthy sounding claims are actually a marketing trick used by food manufacturers. Nutrition buzzwords – i.e. “natural, organic, paleo, low in calories/fat/sodium” - are intentionally used to help convince you to buy.
This concept is known as a health halo – the perceived healthfulness of a product based on a single quality or health claim.
And it works!
Here’s what happened when the Health Halo was studied...One study offered participants two samples of yogurt, cookies, and chips labeled “organic” and “regular”. Participants believed the organic foods were lower in calories and tasted better and healthier compared to the regular foods.
The catch? Both the organic and regular samples were the exact same organic foods! Proving the power of slick marketing!
Some researchers also conclude consumers experience less guilt when they believe they’re choosing a healthy option, which then justifies larger portion sizes and increased calorie intake.
The 2 most common nutrition claims that contribute to health halos? There are two buzzwords that are often aligned with making a healthful food choice that I want to highlight because they are so commonly used - but they are also 2 of the most misleading!
Shoppers tend to believe “low in fat” equates to low in calories. Not the case!
When fat is removed from a food, it’s usually replaced with unhealthy ingredients (think chemicals) and sugar (usually lots of it!) to improve texture and flavor.
All that added sugar can increase the calorie count big time (say hello bigger waistline) AND end up being worse for your health overall than if you’d just had a bit of the full-fat original!
Common examples of reduced-fat foods perceived as healthy include yogurt (flavored varieties are loaded with added sugar and other fillers), bottled salad dressing, peanut butter (think cute teddy bears or squirrels), and commercially baked snacks, like crackers, muffins and cookies.
The term “gluten-free” has become synonymous with healthy - whether you need to avoid gluten for a bona fide health reason or not!
Gluten-free does NOT equate to low-carb, low-calorie, whole grain, high fiber, low sugar, or organic.
Remember: gluten is a protein found in wheat, spelt, kamut, rye, and barley. A gluten-free food doesn’t contain any of those grains that contain gluten - that’s it!
Yet, you’ll see “gluten-free” slapped on the labels of foods that NEVER contain these ingredients to begin with.
Case in point? Potato chips.
Potato chips (should) contain potatoes, oil, and salt. There are generally no gluten-containing ingredients in chips, but food manufacturers still utilize the “gluten-free” label freely to help drive sales.
And no, sorry, eating an entire bag of fried potato chips isn’t a healthy option – even if the bag reads “gluten-free”. Gluten-free chips, cookies, and snack foods are still chips, cookies, and snack foods.
How to Avoid Falling for Health Halos
On a positive note, just because a food (or food-like) product features a health halo-type claim doesn’t mean you can’t have it. It just means you shouldn’t overestimate the healthfulness of a product based on a word or two!
Here are 4 tips for how NOT to fall for those alluring products...
1. Read nutrition labels...very carefully. Investigate the calorie, fat, and sugar content per serving to determine whether a food is the best choice for your health goals.
2. Read ingredient lists....very carefully. For example, if you’re trying to eliminate added sugars, you’ll want to steer clear of any products that list some form of sweetener in the first few ingredients.
3. Pay attention to portion sizes. Stick to a single serving and measure if you’re tempted to overeat. Did you know that the average person generally eats 2-3 times the normal portion size for carbohydrate-heavy and/or salty snack foods?
4. Prepare your own snacks. Avoiding pre-packaged snacks helps you control ingredients. How about trying your hand at baking your own veggie “chips.”
We know you’ve probably seen numerous recipes for kale chips - but have you actually tried them? They’re incredibly easy to make and even yummier to inhale all in one sitting ;)
Oven-Baked Kale “Chips
1 large bunch kale, washed and thoroughly dried
1 tbsp olive oil OR avocado oil
1 tsp sea salt
1.Preheat oven to 325 degrees.
2.Remove stems from kale leaves and discard. Tear remaining kale leaves into bite-sized pieces.
3.Toss kale leaves with oil and sea salt. Spread on parchment lined baking sheet. Bake till edges begin to crisp, about 15-20 minutes. Watch closely so as to not let the “chips” burn!
4.Serve warm right from the oven.