Updated: Jul 11
Reading and understanding nutritional labels is scary, but it doesn’t have to be. Learning how to properly choose the healthiest foods is one of the key determinants of health. We now know that genetics play a minimal role in one’s health destiny, with 80% of disease incidence depending on lifestyle choices, mainly the foods you’re putting in your mouth.
Think about it, the foods you consume are by far the most important chemical interaction between your body and the outside environment, and is the most likely factor to determine how well you age over time. Let’s break down the nutrition label into bite size pieces and then we’ll take a look at how to properly decipher an ingredients list, in order to make more healthy and informed choices when feeding our families. The most important takeaway from this whole article is: « the healthier foods often have the shortest ingredients list, and the healthiest don’t have any at all ».
The Serving Size
This represents the manufacturer’s suggested serving size. Be careful here, since what they suggest to be a serving is often much smaller than what people are actually consuming, and companies can strategically plan their serving size to make the other nutrients or calories appear more attractive or enticing to the consumer. If you buy a bag of chips that says 200 calories per serving, careful calculations might reveal that there are 2-3 servings per bag, meaning that eating the whole thing will set you back 500-600 calories. Nice try marketing committee, nice try. Also, recognize that some companies, by making their servings sizes unusually small, are no longer obliged to report some nutrients that are below certain thresholds. Companies have used this tactic in the past to avoid reporting the trans fats they contained. Governing bodies have picked up on this and are making moves to outlaw these clever marketing loop holes. Take a look at latest updates of the nutritional label.
Most people make the common mistake of not reading past the calories. I remember choosing Lucky Charms cereal over Kashi cereals simply because they were lower in calories. I didn‘t realize how highly processed and refined grains with high levels of added sugar were detrimental to my health in comparison to the nutrient dense whole grains and gut feeding fiber found in minimally processed cereal. You can’t get any of this information it you stop reading at the calories section. In my humble opinion, fiber, probably the most important nutrient of all, should appear higher up on the list. Fiber keeps you fuller for longer, and feeds the good gut bugs in your colon. Bacteria then produce SCFA (short chain fatty acids) that cross the blood brain barrier to reduce appetite at your next meal. They also slow down digestion and lower your meal’s glycemic index and produce a much slower spike in blood sugar, which is protective against metabolic diseases like diabetes. Total calories in one meal doesn’t tell the whole story though. Now, I understand that eating more calories through whole grains will sustain my hunger for longer, and over the course of the day, will lead to fewer total calories without feeling starved, restricted or deprived. Refined carbs, like those in Lucky Charms cereal, will get absorbed very quickly, causing an unhealthy spike in blood sugar. They contain almost no fiber, meaning that they will not provide sustained fullness and you’ll get hungry much sooner, causing most people to consume excess calories later in the day, or having to voluntarily ignore hunger cues and feel restricted while craving for more food. My short answer: calories are important, but they only paint a very small part of the whole health and weight management picture. They say nothing about the health promoting effects of a food. They say nothing about the types of fat or carbs they contain, or their fiber content. Don’t stop reading after calories.
Also remember that the percentages of daily values represent percentages that are based on a 2000 calorie diet. The amount of calories someone should eat will vary according to weight, physical activity, sex, fitness goals, weight management goals and age. Other factors like medical illnesses might also impact someone’s calorie requirements.
The next section will reveal total fat per serving as well as the percentage of the daily value on a 2000 calorie diet, which is adequate for the general adult, but will vary greatly according to age, weight, sex, medical conditions and activity level. When looking at fat content, you must be careful in interpreting these numbers. Most will only look at total fat content and stop there. Diet culture and fat fear mongering has made many people actively seek out low fat foods. Fat is not unhealthy. It’s calorie dense, at 9 calories per gram, but 100% necessary to survive and thrive. The goal should be to focus on choosing unsaturated fat and keeping saturated fat low and trans fats as close to zero as possible. I have a full article where I deep dive into the science of fat that you can read here, and another where I go into detail about cholesterol that you can access here.
Now, don’t panic if you notice that the total number of grams of fat doesn’t seem to add up when looking at saturated and trans fats. That’s normal. Many labels don’t include the other types of fat, like unsaturated fat, which include the monounsaturated (omega-9) and polyunsaturated (omega-3 and omega-6) fats. Since labels often list only saturated and trans fat, the total fat minus these amounts will equal the unsaturated fat. Try to get most of your fat from unsaturated sources if you can. Fat is greatly misunderstood and is not the enemy.
You can read all about cholesterol in one of my recent blog posts here, but keep in mind that cholesterol only exists in animal products. That’s right! Plants do not, I repeat, do not contain cholesterol. They actually contain phytosterols (plant cholesterol), referred to as plant sterols and stanols, which compete with animal derived cholesterol and block its absorption in the gut. Keep dietary cholesterol as close to zero as possible, since the body can synthesize whatever amount is needed without help from our diets. Remember that blood levels of cholesterol are mainly determined by the saturated fat that you eat, more than your dietary cholesterol, so focus on lowering your saturated fat intake first.
Again, I have a full article on sodium and salt that you can access here. We consume way too much sodium and although people associate sodium with table salt or salt shakers, 70% of our daily sodium intakes actually come from the highly processed foods we consume. Even if it doesn’t taste salty doesn’t mean it‘s not full of sodium. Keep a close eye on the daily value percentage and on serving size. If that serving of chips contains 25% of your daily value, the bag which can contain 2-3 servings, might account for 50% or more of your daily sodium requirements in one snack! High sodium intake is linked to hypertension, stomach cancer, heart failure, osteoporosis and kidney stones, and most of your sodium is hiding right there in plain sight, in the processed foods you eat.
Carbs aren’t the enemy and I break this down in much detail in a recent blog post that you can read here. In short, carbs can be simple or complex, refined or not, and this is very important to consider when looking at the health promoting properties of a food. The total number of carbs contained on the nutrition label doesn’t tell you much about where those carbs come from or what type they are.
The most overlooked detail when looking at total carbohydrates is that fiber is a type of carb. Read that again. Total fiber content is included in the total carb count, yet fiber counts for zero calories. Some experts say that fiber should actually count for negative calories, since it traps calories inside of undigested food particles, which are then flushed down the toilet. Think of those small pieces of corn or blueberries floating in the toilet. Now imagine that this phenomenon also happens on a microscopic level. On top of trapping calories, fiber also promotes prolonged satiety or fullness, and feeds your gut bugs. They then ferment dietary fiber to produce SCFA (short chain fatty acids). These are compounds that slow down digestion and decrease appetite at your next meal! There’s no reason to fear carbs, but it’s important to understand that some are more health promoting than others. The source of your carbs is much more important than the total number of grams.
Total sugars are very important to look at. Sugar is often added to processed foods to make them more palatable. Often, companies looking to make low-fat versions of their products will simply add sugar to make them more tasty. This gives the illusion of being more health promoting, but is just that, an illusion. A low-fat label slapped on the box or bottle is sure to turn heads, but added sugar is also a major risk factor for chronic disease, like cardiovascular disease, auto-immune conditions and cancer. Simple sugars can be hidden in plain site, behind names like high-fructose corn syrup, raw cane sugar, or cane syrup. Some won’t sound like sugar at all, like anhydrous dextrose, corn sweetener, crystal dextrose or fruit juice concentrate. Added sugar consumption is a major problem in our modern societies. The WHO recommends we consume less than 12 teaspoons of added sugar per day, with an additional recommendation to consume less than 6 teaspoons per day for optimal health. The average Canadian consumes an average of 17 teaspoons of added sugar per day, well above the recommended limit. One teaspoon equals approximately 4 grams of sugar, and some children are consuming 20-25 grams of sugar at breakfast by eating a magically sugar ladened bowl of Lucky Charms cereal. This cereal was my personal favourite during my days in medical school.
Total carbohydrates include those from sugars, fiber and other carbs that can then be complex or simple. The food matrix in which these carbs are packaged will be the major determinant of its health effects. For example, fruits contain carbs in a food matrix containing fiber, polyphenols, vitamins and minerals, and although they’re simple carbs, they are considered to be health promoting. Beans contain carbs that are also packaged in a matrix of fiber and nutrients, making them high in carbs, but very health promoting. In fact, the longest living populations in the world have carb-heavy diets centred around vegetables, whole grains and legumes, which are all high-carb foods. Turns out the source of your carbs is also much more important than the quantity.
Protein has managed to escape the fear mongering we’ve seen with carbs and fat, but its health halo is still misunderstood by many. In fact, so much so that I‘ve decided to write a two-part series on the nutritional science surrounding protein. You can read « The Protein Panic » here and « Where Do You Get Your Protein? » here. Since protein plays a crucial role in many vital bodily functions, it’s important to get enough, but studies show that this is much easier than many think and many of us end up actually overdoing protein. Check out the articles I’ve linked above to get your nerd on and learn about protein quality, quantity and other fun, yet misunderstood details.
Vitamins and Mineral
Last but not least, you’ll find the vitamins and minerals section. Here, you’ll typically see vitamin A and C, as well as the minerals iron and calcium. If you’re consuming fortified foods, then these numbers might interest you, but keep in mind that the foods that contain the highest amounts and varieties of vitamins and minerals don’t come with nutritional labels. Aim for as many servings of dark leafy greens as possible, while including a variety of other fruits and veggies throughout your day. In my home, we aim for at least 3 different colors of fruits and veggies per meal, and try to hide dark leafy greens in sauces, stir-frys and smoothies as much as we can, or as much as our kids let us.
An ingredients list is super important for people who have food allergies. The healthiest foods have only one ingredient and apples and broccoli don’t come with an ingredients list. As a general rule, aim for whole foods or minimally processed foods with a short ingredient list. Through food processing, we’ve traded health for convenience and shelf-life. We’ve stripped away most of the nutrients, removed most of the fiber and we’ve then added preservatives and other additives so food doesn’t spoil. Food isn’t supposed to last years on a shelf. When looking at the ingredients list, can you recognize and pronounce the names? Ingredients should be real food as much as possible. When foods contain unrecognizable chemical compounds, artificial colouring and flavours, that’s when you should consider looking for a lesser processed product. It might be low in calories or low in fat, but that doesn’t make it healthy. Even if a food helps you better manage your weight, that doesn’t mean it‘ll help you avoid disease. Eat real food and whole plants as often as is practical for you and your family and make sure you can pronounce the ingredients you put in your body. In a nutshell, eat real food.
It’s also important to notice that the ingredients aren’t listed in a random order. They’re listed in accordance to the amount of weight they contribute to the product. It starts with the heaviest and works its way to the lightest. If you’re purchasing quinoa cookies and quinoa isn’t the first ingredient listed, you might be in big trouble.
Nutrition Labels’ Limitations
Nutrition labels provide valuable information to consumers. They provide a means of comparing items to each other and can help us make healthier choices. But they do have limitations. Diet culture has led many to not read past the calories and fat, which is probably why they appear at the top of the list. This may lead people to believe that they’re the most important factors to consider when making food choices. Yet, nutritional labels offer minimal information on whether or not the macros and micros are highly or minimally processed and consumers have to figure this out on their own. If I could change nutritional labels, I’d have the ingredients list on top and I’d colour code them according to their level of processing. I’d clearly identify chemical compounds that have no right to be in our foods and I’d subsidize produce instead of meat and dairy. That being said, I’m just a medical doctor who has dedicated the last decade of his life to studying nutrition and making this information free, easy to understand and available to who ever wants to see it, what do I know?
Every nutrition study looking at hard data like morbidity, mortality and disease incidence seems to say the same thing: eat real food, not too much, mostly plants. If you can find recipes that make them tasty, then you’re winning at life.
One last thing! Health Canada indicates that less than 5% of the daily value means low, greater than 15% of the DV means high and 5-15% is moderate. Unfortunately, the new Canadian labels do not list added sugars. Added sugars are only listed on the new US labels!
Check out my website plantbaseddrjules.com and look for the “How To” section in the menu. There, you’ll find tips and tricks that helped me on my journey towards a plant-predominant diet. Everything there is completely free, no catches! If you're looking for quick, easy and healthy plant-based recipes, check out plantbaseddrjules.com and download my free recipe eBook!
Look for me on the socials, @plantbased_dr_jules on Instagram and go like my Facebook Page, Plant-based Dr. Jules. If you’re looking for some fitness motivation and are curious to see what a plant-based athlete can accomplish, follow me, @maritimeninja, on my fitness account on Instagram or check out my fitness group on Facebook, called Maritime Ninja Warrior. I'm a two-time world championship qualified athlete and you can follow my fitness journey there! You can even access the resources section by becoming a member. It's free and there, you can download free resources like my plant-based recipe eBook!
You also check out my YouTube channel here for more tips and tricks on how to embark on a plant-based journey!
Thanks so much for reading! Please consider sharing this article!
Plant-Based Dr. Jules 💚🌱