How To Read Food Label Nutrition Facts For Healthy Cooking Learn How To Tell What Is In the Food You Cook

how to read food label nutrition facts for healthy cooking

One of the most important things you can do for your own health is to know what you’re cooking and eating. In recent years, food labels have become much more user-friendly and you really can know exactly what you’re preparing. Knowing how to read nutrition facts on a food or drink label or on a recipe you find online is critical in today’s world.

With more recipes online that you want to try, understanding their nutritional value becomes an essential part of choosing and cooking a healthy recipe for yourself and your family.

Why Should You Care What’s In Your Food?

Your relationship with food is important to your health and well-being. What you eat can help to give you energy, improve your immune system, and allow you to combat many diseases. But it can also do the opposite — leave you feeling weak or fatigued and even cause disease. This is especially important if you or those you cook for have any underlying health conditions.

But if you’ve never given your food much thought, reading food labels can be intimidating. There’s a lot of information there. Deciding which information is important and which isn’t as relevant for the health needs of you and your family can be challenging. Once you know the basics, though, you’ll read those labels with confidence.

What Should You Look For?

There’s a lot of information on that label — everything from serving size and calories, to the Big 3 nutrients (fats, protein, and carbohydrates), to sodium, cholesterol, and specific ingredients.

Be Smart about Serving Size

how to read food label nutrition facts for healthy cooking servings and calorites

Begin with looking at the serving size on the label. Sometimes people miss this part of the label and then have an inaccurate idea of what’s actually in the food. For example, if you have a can of soup and the label says it’s 2 servings, that means that the information on the label would be doubled if you ate the whole can.

Labels have gotten smarter in the recent years. For example, a can of soda used to be 1.5 or 2 servings. But now when you look at the label, one can of soda is a whole serving because most people will drink the entire thing. Looking at a 20-ounce bottle, though, takes a little math to determine how many servings are in a full bottle because it is more than one.

Calorie Breakdown — Balance of the Big Three

Once you know the serving size for the items you’re preparing, you’re ready to move on to looking at the quality of the food you’re eating. The most obvious information you can get from your food label is about the breakdown of calories.

The label will tell you how many calories are in each serving. Calories are the measurement for how much energy it takes down to break down the food. The higher the calories, the longer it will take to break it down. This is a mixed magic because if there are more calories, it will sustain you for longer, but if they aren’t “good” calories then having more stick around can lead to converting it to fat in your body’s long-term storage.

Your metabolism is the measure of how much energy you burn over a period of time. While we often think of exercising as burning calories, the effect of exercise is small compared to the total calories you burn. You burn calories all day, and while you sleep, too.

When your heart beats, you breathe in and out, your body breaks down nutrients. It makes new blood cells and muscles and that burns calories. That’s why you need an average of around 2,000-2,500 calories in a day. It fuels your body to maintain energy throughout the day and night. It is an estimate with other factors like body type and metabolism, weight, and the amount of muscle your body has to burn calories.

There are three basic molecules that your food can give you: proteins, carbohydrates, and fats. Food labels tell you exactly how much of each you’re getting in a serving of food. The label also tells you how many grams of that food you need in a typical diet. For a healthy diet, you want a balance of these Big Three. Depending on your nutritional goals, the balance of fats, carbs, and proteins can be adjusted to maximize your calorie burn to fit your needs.

Depending on the label, the following are the major categories you’ll find:

  • Total calories per serving
  • Grams of carbohydrates
  • Grams of fat
  • Milligrams of sodium (important for a low-sodium diet)
  • Milligrams of cholesterol (important for a heart-healthy diet)
  • Grams of protein (critical to maintain muscle tone or build muscle)
  • Vitamins and minerals, if any

Within those major categories are some subdivisions to help you understand even more about the food you’re going to cook. Let’s take a look at those subdivisions and what they mean for you when it comes to your ingredients.

Not All Carbohydrates Are Created Equal

how to read food label nutrition facts for healthy cooking carbohydrates and proteins

When it comes to carbs, some are better for you than others. Let’s be clear — you need carbohydrates to have energy and to be healthy. Any diet that tells you to eliminate them completely is unhealthy.

A food label will break down carbohydrates into two categories — fiber and sugars. You’ll notice from this label that total carbs adds up to more than the sum of fiber and sugars. That’s because some carbs have neither but are still important carbs. You need fiber. However, many people don’t have enough fiber in their diets. You want to look for foods that are high in this nutrient.

Fiber helps you to lower your cholesterol and helps your digestive system to be more regular. You’ll find more fiber in foods that contain whole grains such as wheat and oats. Nuts are also high in fiber. This is the healthier type of carbohydrate. If you are cooking to avoid high blood sugar spikes, more fiber in your diet will also help regulate and smooth out the absorption of glucose (sugars).

The other category of sugars is what you need to watch if you’re concerned about diabetes for those you are cooking for. Depending on your situation with blood sugar, you’ll want to limit how many grams of sugar (especially added sugars) you get in your diet. Timing is also important for when you have those sugars. Carbs come in two types here, as well. Complex carbs don’t spike your blood sugar as much as simple sugars such as fruits, juice, soda, and foods with added sugars. Even most common peanut butters like Jif and Skippy have added simple sugars!

When it comes to calories, every gram of carbohydrates contains 4 calories. So if you want to know how many calories in the food come from carbohydrates you can multiply your carbohydrate grams by four. Then you can look at the total calories in the serving to determine the percentage of calories that come from them.

The Purpose of Protein

Your body must have protein to build muscle and other cell building blocks. Most of the structures inside you consist of protein and in order to have the building blocks to repair cells and develop muscle tissue, you’ll need to eat food that has this important molecule.

A food label will tell you the number of grams of protein in your food. You’ll want to look for foods that are high in protein. Foods that have a lot of protein include nuts, meats, whole grain foods, fish, and dairy products. Nuts usually combine higher fiber with protein, and that combination is especially good for regulating blood sugar spikes. Proteins are also 4 calories in a gram.

The Critical Facts About Fats

how to read food label nutrition facts for healthy cooking fats

Food labels will also give you information about fats. In the past, health practitioners told patients to avoid fat altogether. But it turns out that modern science doesn’t support that type of diet. You actually need fats just like you need other molecules in your food.

The two major categories of fats are unsaturated and saturated. Unsaturated fats come from plant sources. At room temperature unsaturated fats stay liquid. These are considered healthy fats. You need them to help keep your skin and other organs healthy. Omega-3 Fatty Acids found in fish like salmon are also good for your health. So planning to slot some fish and salmon into your cooking is a great idea.

Unsaturated fats also help lower “bad” cholesterol and raise “good” cholesterol in your blood. This helps to protect your heart and prevent problems such as heart disease and stroke. They also help your digestive system to run smoothly.

Saturated fats come from animal fats. These are solid at room temperature and are considered unhealthy fats. They contribute to high cholesterol and clogged arteries and can ultimately lead to heart disease, stroke, and other disorders. You can’t get away from them completely, but your doctor may advise you to limit the percentage of saturated fats you prepare in meals.

Trans fats are a category of fats that come from altering the chemical structure of an unsaturated fat. They are also called hydrogenated fats because the process of taking a liquid unsaturated fat to a solid trans fat involves adding hydrogen atoms to the molecules. I know that’s a bit of scientific trivia you probably don’t care about, but it leads to a more important issue.

For many years, it was thought that trans fats were as healthy as unsaturated fats, but that has been disproved. In fact, trans fats are actually more harmful than saturated fats. Because of the bad press trans fats many food manufacturers are removing it from their products.

The United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) now requires that trans fats be listed on food labels. It’s a good idea to avoid any food that has significant trans fats in it. These fats have no nutritional value and are in fact harmful for you.

What About Cholesterol?

Speaking of cholesterol, you can also find the amount of cholesterol in a serving of food on the label. Cholesterol amounts become important when you’re trying to eat a heart healthy diet. If you’re trying to lower cholesterol, you’ll want to pay attention to this part of the label. Foods with cholesterol that also contain fiber are going to be a safer choice than fatty meats. Fish with Omega-3s is an exception to the “meats” when you’re cooking.

Sodium Safety

Another nutrient that food labels provide information about is sodium. Sodium is the fancy, scientific term for salt. If you have normal blood pressure you probably don’t pay too much attention to salt. But if you’re suffering from high blood pressure, you don’t want to ignore it. A little salt added in cooking is one thing, but splattering added salt on top of your meal makes it hard to judge just how much you’re adding to your cooking.

Sodium causes your body to hold onto water and in some people actually causes swelling in hands, feet, and legs. The sodium in turn raises your blood pressure. High blood pressure is a leading risk factor for heart disease and stroke. So if you have this issue, you need to check the labels. Speak with your doctor about what a healthy amount of sodium is for you and your family.

Then you’ll want to look for labels that have low amounts of sodium or are even free from it. Some foods are labeled as “low sodium” or “sodium free.” Unfortunately, the words on the label outside the statistics can be misleading and are not usually regulated. So you still need to look at the label and see where it fits in with your needs.

Eating Vitamins and Minerals — What About These Food Elements?

While most people could use a multivitamin each day, the best way to get your vitamins and minerals is through the food you eat. In food, you find these vitamins and minerals in a natural state that’s easy for your body to absorb.

Taking over-the-counter multi-vitamins has been proven to be poorly absorbed in many cases, which is probably why the manufacturers load them up with many times the daily recommended amounts. It seems silly to me to take 500-1,000% of the daily requirement to hopefully get 100% absorbed. Your body knows how to handle them coming from food. Just let it do its job.

Food labels will give you an idea of what nutrients can be found in a specific food. Look for foods that are high in vitamins and minerals such as Calcium, Vitamin C, Vitamin B nutrients, Vitamin A, Potassium, and Beta-carotene. Even some Vitamin D is a good addition to what you get in dairy products.

Making Time for Reading Food Labels

When you’re new at reading food labels, it can see overwhelming. But the more you do it, the easier it becomes. You’ll also have your “go-to” foods that you can just pick up without revisiting the label every time.

Plan to spend some extra time at the grocery store shopping for your family and friends when you’re paying more attention to food labels. Pay attention to what nutrients you’re looking to limit and what you need to add to your diet. Before you shop, make a list of what you need to get.

Then, as you’re shopping make a list of additional foods that you’d like to incorporate into your diet. You may also want to make a list of foods you’d like to avoid. Perhaps something you’ve always loved has way more cholesterol than you can afford. Spend some time looking for a substitute that’s on the healthier side.

Sometimes the Raw Numbers Don’t Say It All — Read the Ingredients

how to read food label nutrition facts for healthy cooking ingredients

The other list you’ll find on a nutrition label — or near it — is a list of ingredients. Ingredients on products are listed in order from greatest amount to least amount in the food. This list of ingredients can be very helpful for determining if a food is something you want to eat or not. Sometimes you’ll be surprised about what is in there.

My husband loves Pepperidge Farm cookies. A few years ago he bought some and gave me one to try. I took a nibble and put it down.

“It has coconut,” I said.

“No, it doesn’t,” he insisted, “Read the label — no mention of coconut.”

I turned the box over and pointed to the last item on the ingredient list. It was coconut, which I hate and can easily taste. We had a good laugh.

Some ingredients you might want to avoid include:

  • Corn syrup (highly processed sugar, often called High Fructose Corn Syrup)
  • Hydrogenated oils — the dreaded trans-fats
  • Monosodium glutamate (MSG) — the book is still out on this one, but many people going with an extremely healthy diet recommend avoiding it
  • Artificial coloring — this isn’t proven to be harmful but if you’re leaning towards “super healthy” then you can use this as a marker for examining other nutrients
  • Artificial sweeteners (sucralose, aspartame, saccharin) — recent research has found that these are not as harmful as expected, even for those with diabetes. Personally, we go with sucralose or Splenda because it is a slight genetic cousin to regular sugar.

Ingredients that are not natural and come from chemical processing are generally not as good for your body. A handy rule of thumb to follow is that if you can’t pronounce the ingredient (foreign foods don’t count), you probably shouldn’t eat it.

Once you start reading food labels, you’ll be surprised to find out how many additives are in processed foods. While some foods with labels are healthy for you, there are a lot of foods that come in cans, boxes, and bags that contain harmful ingredients.

Foods Without Labels

When it comes to nutrition, the best thing you can do is look for foods that don’t require labels. These are foods such as fresh fruits, vegetables, and meats. The less processed your food is, the healthier it will be.

Other foods have labels, but are also close to their natural state. This includes foods such as:

  • Milk
  • Yogurt
  • 100% Whole grain bread
  • 100% Whole grain cereals
  • Natural peanut butter without added sugars
  • Natural cheese

When you’re shopping, reading food label nutrition can help you to make good choices for healthy foods to cook. Look for foods that are high in nutrition and low on saturated fats, artificial chemicals, cholesterol, and processed sugars. This will help you to prevent disease, have more energy, and even help you to shrink your waistline.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *