All manufactured foods are required by law to carry food labels containing safety and nutrition information. Understanding the labels and interpreting the information will help you make sensible food choices at the grocery store.
Especially for a low carb diet, concepts like serving size versus portion size and percent daily value puts you in the driver’s seat when it comes to your food choices.
It’s important to understand the labels on products and interpret the information on them. This will help you make smart decisions when it comes to selecting healthy food that fits with your low carb lifestyle. Plus, it’s always good to be aware of what you’re eating, right? So let’s get started!
The two most important sections on a food label are the Nutrition Panel and the Ingredients List.
What’s on the Food Labels?
On a typical food label you will find:
- The brand name
- Name of the product
- Ingredient list (always listed in order from largest to smallest by weight)
- Nutritional information (such as the average amount of energy, fat, protein, sugars and salt)
- Date of production and expiry date
- Weight of the product
- Food allergen information
- Directions for its usage and storage
- The manufacturer’s information
- The country of production
Why is it Important to Know How to Read Food Labels?
Don’t be fooled by the big, bold, colourful labels on the front of every product – it’s pure marketing. The label may make several nutritional claims such as ‘gluten-free‘, ‘low fat‘, ‘reduced salt‘ or ‘high fibre‘ but just because a product can make a nutritional claim, doesn’t make it healthy. The sole purpose of having those labels is to attract customers and persuade them to buy the product. These labels do not tell you the entire truth about the product.
What’s more important than the information on the front, is the information on the back of the product. That’s where you will find all the information that you need, which is the nutritional information, the ingredient list, calorie count and serving information.
Food Labels – What do They Mean?
The nutritional panel tells you about the nutrients you get out of a single serving of that product. Looking at this panel is the best way to compare two products from different brands. Easy comparison is looking at the percentages per 100ml column.
Here’s what you should be looking out for:
Energy, or Calories:
The number of calories per serving is always listed near the top of the nutrition facts label. Energy is normally measured in Kilojoules (otherwise known as calories).
When you look at the calories in your packaged foods, remember that they don’t represent nutrient density or weight; it’s simply the amount of energy that the food holds. Don’t get too hung up on calories, but when you know how many calories a particular food item contains, it can help you determine if this is a snack or if it’s a meal.
Fat contains the most kilojoules per gram compared to any other nutrient. Depending on the food item, the fat content may vary significantly. Like carbs, not all fats are created equal. As a principle, most of your fat intake should come from monounsaturated and saturated fat sources. Some labels even break the fat down into different types of fat.
You should avoid artificial trans fats at all costs. They are not natural fats. They are industrialised seed oils, extracted from plant seeds including soybean, canola, corn. Seed oils are a cheap ingredient used in highly processed foods and are also used by fast-food chains and restaurants for deep frying. Check out this You Tube video of how canola oil is made.
The carbohydrate count is usually displayed as total grams, and then further broken down into carbs from fibre and sugar. You should focus on total carbohydrates.
Most fibre bypasses your digestive system and helps feed good gut bacteria in your colon, and it doesn’t get broken down into glucose. Therefore, it doesn’t quite act like a normal carbohydrate. On a low carb diet, you can subtract the grams of fibre from the total carbohydrates to come up with the net carb count.
And, as always, pay attention to the serving size. Something might be low in carbs, but if you eat 3 or 4 servings, you can easily go over your daily limit.
Sugar is a type of carbohydrate. It is naturally occurring in some foods, but can also be an added ingredient. Try and avoid foods that have large amounts of added sugars. Sugar should be less than 3-6 grams per 100g or 100mL. With dairy, the first 4.7g of sugar per 100mL is lactose (no fructose). Anything above that is added sugar.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) recommends 5-10 teaspoons per day.
Let’s take a look at tomato ketchup as an example. The below label shows there are 4.3g of carbs in a 15ml serving size which is equivalent to one tablespoon. 3.4g of this is sugar. There is 22.7g of sugar in 100ml, that’s 5.6 teaspoons of sugar. The World Health Organisation (WHO) recommends no more than 5-10 teaspoons of added sugar in an entire day.
Be aware of hidden sugars. When it comes to added sugars in food, manufacturers have a pretty sneaky way of putting the added sugar content on the ingredient list. They do this by using many different aliases for sugar. Did you know there are more than 50 different names for sugar! Some of the most common names that you will find are:
- Corn Syrup
- Golden Syrup
- Maple Syrup
That’s a lot of names for sugar!
Did you know?Sucrose (table sugar) is the most familiar ‘sugar’, comprising glucose and fructose in a 50:50 ratio, and is often referred to as ‘refined sugar’.
Found in foods from both plants and animals, protein is made up of hundreds or thousands of smaller units, called amino acids, which are linked to one another in long chains. The sequence of amino acids determines each protein’s unique structure and its specific function. There are 20 amino acids, of which 9 are considered essential and 11 are considered as nonessential amino acids.
It is important to use the nutritional labels as a tool for monitoring the consumption of protein and choosing protein foods that are lower in saturated fat. Choose a variety of protein foods, such as lean meats and poultry, seafood, and unsalted nuts and seeds. Select fresh, grass-fed meats rather than processed varieties you can get from the deli such as salami.
Finding foods that are low in carbohydrates yet high in fibre may seem like a challenge. However, almost all non-starchy vegetables and low-sugar fruits are also the highest in both fibre and nutrients.
A high intake of sodium is linked to high blood pressure and can lead to heart diseases, strokes and kidney disease. Food that contains less than 400 milligrams per 100 grams are good, but foods with less than 120 milligrams per 100 grams are your best options. Highly processed foods are likely to have a higher salt content. Refer back up to the tomato ketchup label to see 1360mg of sodium per 100mL.
Knowing which nutrients are important is only the first step of reading labels. The second step is to use that knowledge while reading the ingredient list.
The way ingredient lists work is by listing ingredients from the greatest to smallest quantity by weight. Check if any of the first three ingredients listed are items high in saturated fat, sodium, or added sugar. You don’t want to see a long list of ingredients either, this indicates a highly processed product.
Calories are a unit of energy, so the calories on food labels represent the amount of energy you get from the food item. The calories on the label are printed as per a single serving, so it is important to remember that the number of servings you consume determines the number of calories you actually eat.
If your goal is to lose weight and you are counting calories, then this part of the label is extremely important to ensure you do not consume too many calories. Your calorie needs may be higher or lower and vary depending on your age, sex, height, weight, and physical activity level and it’s important to know this in order to ensure you meet your calorie needs.
When reading labels, this is the first thing you want to look at. You will find the serving size and the servings per container. Serving sizes are standardized such as cups or pieces, followed by the metric amount, this makes it easier to compare similar food products. The serving size stated refers to the quantity of that food that will be consumed. However, this is not a recommendation for the amount of food you should intake.
All the nutritional information shown on the label, including the number of calories refers to the size of the serving. Use the serving information to estimate how much you consume so that you meet your calorie needs. You can find more information on portion sizes here.
Understanding how to read food labels is an important skill to have in your arsenal when living a low carb life. Aim to eat whole foods in their natural state as they usually don’t come in a packet. If you do buy packaged foods, aim for minimally processed ones. The less ingredients listed on a product, the less processed it will be.