Thousands of years ago, when eaten naturally, there was no nutritional labeling. Our diet was based on hunting, gathering wild fruits and vegetables, everything we ate was truly natural! On the other hand, today it is common for everything we eat to have been industrially processed, containing additives, preservatives, artificial colors and comes packaged. Many of these types of products are known as pseudo-foods , that is, a food that smells and tastes like food, but is poor in nutrients.
If you eat only to fill your stomach, the latter should not worry you; But if you are like me and you are looking to consume quality foods that provide your body with nutrients necessary to maintain good health, you will be alarmed!
Here lies the importance of reading and -especially- understanding what the nutritional labeling tells us of the products we consume, to REALLY know what we are going to put in our mouths. This is the real secret to guarantee a healthy purchase.
What should we look for when we read nutrition labels?
Food labels, in general, have a lot of information, from the nutritional contribution, through its ingredients, to what is related to its handling. So the idea is to go directly to those data that are most relevant, in order to optimize the time at the time of purchase.
I know! At first it may be somewhat tedious, but I assure you that with practice, it will be a simple activity that will become part of your routine.
Portion size. First things first!
One of the main things to look at when taking a product is the serving size , which is what the The manufacturer defines it as the “recommended individual serving”. The values per 100 grams also appear.
Be careful with this data! Because is the one that will help you determine what you are really going to consume . Let me explain better, it is not the same to eat 25 grams of a product than 50, and many times these types of errors are made when the contribution of nutrients is seen directly and it is not verified how many grams of product are those that provide those nutrients. For this you also need to know the net weight of the package.
For example, I have seen many cases of people who eat an entire package of potato chips believing that they only consume the amount of nutrients that are listed on the nutrition label, but do NOT realize that this value is that provide 45 grams of product, the package having a total of 180 grams. That is, they ended up eating 4 TIMES MORE than they actually believed.
Calories or Energy value.
Another component to take into account are calories or energy value . It is important that you bear in mind at this point that calories are a guide measure that can tell you whether or not that food is going to provide you with a lot of energy On many occasions this is the component to which the most attention is paid when it should not being like this, counting calories is useless .
The units of energy in which it is expressed are in kilocalories (kcal.) or Calories (Cal.), and in kilojoules (kj.). Both define the energy intake of the food, but the best known and most managed are Calories.
As a general rule, we are usually alarmed if we see that a food is a little high in kilocalories, thinking that it will directly make us fat, and what you should really worry about is where those calories come from, paying attention to the nutrients.
Carbohydrates one of the most relevant data when reading labels . You should pay close attention to where it comes from -as it happened with calories-, since the carbohydrates contained in a cake or any ultra-processed product are very different than those contained in an apple or a banana, for example.
In order to see where the carbohydrates come from, that is, which ingredient is going to provide us with that energy contribution, it will help you to look at the list of ingredients – which I will talk about a little later -. You should also bear in mind that-unfortunately- it is NOT mandatory that all nutritional values appear in this table. For example, starch is one of the components that make up the group of carbohydrates and many times it does not appear.
However, the data that we must consider the most in this section is sugar . Well, it is one of the most important components when deciding on one product or another . Today the negative effects of sugar on health are more than known, particularly refined that does not contain nutrients, providing empty calories. For this reason, I recommend that you always prefer products without added sugar.
Fabulous ally in any food! But while its consumption is highly recommended for health, we must distinguish the fiber that is present in foods naturally from that which is added artificially, and it is with this that we have to be especially careful.
A trick to distinguish it quickly is, if you see words like polydextrose, oligofructose or inulin in the ingredients, it is added fiber, usually to get that extra contribution for products that are sold to us as “high in fiber”. In the same way, in products that are sold as “whole”, the ideal is to see that the ingredients really are; For example, in the case of bread, that the raw material is whole wheat flour, apart from adding fiber to a white flour.
The same thing happens with them as with calories. S e tend to be very misguided, tending to think that foods that contain fat are harmful, opting for those low in fat but have large amounts of sugar or artificial sweeteners , which they are very harmful to health.
Don’t be afraid of them! Fats are not only good for our body, they are also necessary . But the truth is that from this group we must be careful with trans fats , in these you should pay attention when choosing a product and avoid its consumption. They are not natural fats and are very harmful to our health.
We can find trans fats in foods made industrially with vegetable oils (such as margarine), among which are salty snacks, industrial pastries, empanadas, among others.
Salt or Sodium.
Sodium is necessary for the normal functioning of our body. L the amount of sodium that is found naturally in food is not what should really concern us , but the excessive use that is made of it in the food industry -or even in our homes-, since salt improves the palatability of products, making them much tastier and stimulating to the palate.
Sodium promotes fluid retention, favoring the development of hypertension and making cellulite more visible, among other consequences, so the ideal is to look for foods that have a low percentage.
Are ingredients and order important?
In addition to everything that I have just mentioned, it is important that you also look at the ingredients that make up the product and the order in which they appear. Unfortunately, it is often an aspect that is not taken into account.
The ingredients are ordered according to their presence in the product, from more to less ; that is to say, from those that are in greater quantity to those that are in less quantity. So it is important that you keep this in mind when making the decision of whether or not to buy a product.
In addition, by law it is mandatory that the percentage of each ingredient appear, especially those that are main ingredients according to the name of the product. This data is usually called “% Daily Value (% DV) “, and it tells us what percentage of that nutrient the product provides, in relation to what it is recommended to eat on average in a day. It is considered that a% DV above 20% is a HIGH contribution of the nutrient in question .
Be careful! Whether this is good or bad will depend on your goal; For example, if you are looking to increase protein intake, consuming a high-intake snack could be more of a benefit.
The marketing behind industrial foods and their nutritional labeling.
Behind each product that the industry catalogs as “light”, “fitness” or “healthy” among others, you can find a product loaded with sugars and additives very harmful to health. The industry has studied its marketing strategies to make us believe that what they propose are suitable products to feed us correctly.
Fortunately, more and more people are worrying and taking more care of their diet, so they know that sugar is something they should avoid as much as possible. Unfortunately, many companies are aware of this and play to change the words, substituting sugar for other synonyms such as corn syrup, maltodextrin, glucose, among others … This is how they try to make it go unnoticed in the eyes of the consumer. Don’t be fooled!
Others are products “low in sugar”, “without sugar” or “low in carbohydrates” . Check these products carefully to avoid buying those that have artificial sweeteners, which are not healthy either. This is something that we can see with sugar-free chocolates, whose main ingredient is maltitol, for example, which may be one of the least problematic sweeteners, but it is not healthy.
And what about parents?
Undoubtedly a group that the industry has more deceived are parents concerned about the feeding of their children. How many times have you not come across the typical ad for cereals fortified with vitamins and iron? This is still another deception of the industry so that its products loaded with refined carbohydrates continue to be consumed whose major component is sugar .
Knowledge is power.
For all these reasons, it is recommended that you pay attention to the nutritional labeling of foods, since they show all the valuable information about the food you eat. They are your best tool to buy products that really feel good to you, and that are free of harmful ingredients for your health.
Remember that a beautiful packaging is not synonymous with nutrition . Don’t be fooled! Having a demanding attitude when shopping is key for you and yours to eat better.