Selecting Better Ingredients by Reading Nutrition Fact Labels
Taking the time to read nutrition facts labels provides us with opportunities to use better quality ingredients for preparing our meals, and support better health and wellbeing.
Reading nutrition facts labels became a regular part of my grocery shopping routine a few years back when I decided to focus on selecting better ingredients as one component of improving my cooking lifestyle. Fresh or frozen vegetables, fruits, and proteins are the mainstays for my recipes yet there are processed foods that are at times necessary and extremely helpful to have on hand. And, not all processed foods are bad. Think about canned foods like tomatoes, beans, and other legumes, or coconut milk. With a strong artisan food maker movement afoot, more and more nutritionally valuable products are making their way to grocery store shelves these days by makers small and large. The idea is to be selective about the ingredients being used so that my cooking is both delicious and provides good nutritional value. For my household, this approach has proven extremely useful in improving our health and wellbeing.
The basic components of food nutrition labels include the serving size, calories, nutrient information, percentage of daily values, and an ingredient list. Ingredients are listed in order of quantity, ranging from the highest amount to the lowest amount of each ingredient. We can look at labels for a variety of reasons based on our personal dietary needs and goals – some may check the grams and percentages of saturated fat or sodium while others may search ingredient lists for gluten. With a personal goal of using ingredients that are lower in added sugar, sodium and other additives in the recipes I create, I first look at the percentages and daily values listed and then hone in on the ingredient lists.
Sugar in various forms is added to almost every processed food. It is a good preservative and flavor booster but adds up quickly over the course of a day when consuming processed foods. I generally look for products that contain 5 grams or less of added sugar. My preference for adding sweetness to my cooking is to use honey, molasses or maple syrup, or various forms of fruit rather than refined white sugar. Yes, they are still types of “sugar”, yet they are more natural, less refined. I also find I can use less to get the level of sweetness I desire.
For further information on reducing added sugar, see my post on “Reducing Added Sugar in Your Pantry and Refrigerator”.
Sodium is a naturally occurring ingredient in many foods, and our bodies need a certain amount to be healthy. According to the American Heart Association, Americans consume on average about “3,400 mg of sodium per day” of sodium, which is much over the Dietary Guidelines of limiting sodium intake to less than 2,300 mg per day, or 1 teaspoon of salt.
When reading food labels, products that contain
- 5% or less of the Daily Value are considered low sodium products
- 20% or more of the Daily Value for sodium are considered high sodium products
I first search for products that contain 5% or less, and when necessary, I look for those that contain no more than 10%, of the Daily Value for sodium. Something to keep in mind is that added sodium can be found in unexpected items such as poultry, pork, fish and seafood or even certain beverages. Check the packaging and labels for such terms as “percent solution”, “enhanced”, “added broth” or “natural flavoring”. Look for those products that do not contain these added ingredients.
While sodium plays a key role in cooking and baking – tenderizing, flavoring, balancing sweetness – it can be lessened with the use of herbs, spices, citrus and vinegars.
Along with sugar and sodium, other additives are used in the food manufacturing process to boost flavor, nutritional value, freshness and shelf life. It’s difficult to avoid all additives and not all of them are bad.
As a general rule, I look for products that contain ingredients that are natural, or additives that I have some familiarity with. A few commonly used food additives that have been deemed safe include citric acid, vinegar, lethicin, inulin, riboflavin, and other vitamins, and guar gum.
Research is ever-evolving and ongoing regarding the effects of many food additives. Currently, those that are recommended to avoid include:
- MSG (especially if sensitive)
- High Fructose Corn Syrup
- Artificial Sweeteners, Flavorings and Colors
- Sodium Benzoate
- Sodium Nitrites and Nitrates (look for low amounts or none added)
- Olestra, Hydrogenated Vegetable Oils, Trans Fats
For more in-depth information on how to read food labels, check out these additional resources:
- Understanding Food Nutrition Labels – American Heart Association
- How to Understand and Use the Nutrition Fact Label – US Food and Drug Administration
- The Basics of the Nutrition Facts Label – Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics
- How to Read Food Labels Without Being Tricked – Healthline
Share your tips for reading nutrition labels and selecting better ingredients in the comments section. I look forward to reading them!
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