Food plays a vital role in our health

How to compare nutrition labels

Food plays a vital role in our health and wellbeing. Learning simple skills that will help us make informed food choices can make a big difference to our diet. One skill that I am going to write about today is reading food labels. As the shopping aisles get bigger with more choices, and life gets busier with more to do lists, being able to read labels will help you navigate through the marketing genius of big brands and understand what is in the beautifully packaged Jar.

All packaged food product labels will have an ingredients list and nutrition fact label. This article will cover ‘Ingredients list’. 

compare nutrition labels

Ingredients list:

This will list the ingredients including preservatives and additives that are in the product. They are usually listed in order of weight. Let us take an example of a commonly bought item, Pasta Sauce.

Food plays a vital role
Label 1
Food plays a vital role
Label 2

In the first label the first ingredient is tomato paste, which is only 32% of the total volume of the product, followed by sugar. Tomatoes are a rich source of Lycopene and protect the body from cancer as well as diseases related to aging. As a result, from a nutrition standpoint, choosing a sauce with a relatively high percentage of tomatoes (at least 60%) would be an important factor to consider when looking at a label.

In the second label, more than 95% of the product is tomato based with sugar being a very small portion of the total product. The other thing to look out for are the preservatives and chemicals in the product. The first label has an extensive list of preservatives and chemicals, including sodium benzoate (211) which many studies have shown to have adverse effects on human health. I would be more inclined towards the second label which says all natural with no preservatives.

Nutritional Fact Label: 

Serving size and Calories: The serving size is usually mentioned on the top right corner. It is important to compare the serving size with the amount one is going to eat and adjust the calculations on the label accordingly. The calories for 100gms in the first jar is 220 calories vs 48 calories in the second (adjusted for 100g serving size). When choosing a pasta sauce, aim for its calorie content to be around 60 calories or less.

Fat:In addition to the calories, be sure to look at the fat content. The first label has 11gms of fat which is clearly very high; one should look for a sauce that has 3gms at the most. Both labels are great as far as trans-fat is concerned. Another thing to note is that, although not in the case of this food label, in most others ‘trans fats’ will not explicitly be written as trans fats. Rather, food labels will include ingredients that contain trans fats – such as partially hydrogenated oil and hydrogenated oil.

Sodium: While glancing at the label, it is important to look at the sodium content.Although sodium is essential for regulating water balance in our body, a high sodium diet can cause high blood pressure, and a can lead to a higher risk of stroke and kidney disease.The American heart association recommends that people have a maximum of 1500mg of sodium a day. The tolerable upper limit is around 2300mg a day(to make it more visual 1 tsp of salt contains 2000mg of sodium). One should look for a product with sodium content that is less than 500mg per serving. However, it is also important to be mindful of the salt you use in the rest of the meal to enable you to control your sodium intake for the day. The first label does not show the sodium content; the second label, however, shows the sodium content to be 480mg. 

Sugar:Sugar comes in two types; naturally occurring sugars and added sugars. Unfortunately, food labels don’t differentiate between the two and instead group them together as ‘sugar’. However, reading the ingredient list can give you an indication as to whether the product contains any added sugars. The names for added sugars could include: brown sugar, corn sweetener, corn syrup, fruit juice concentrates and sugar. The American heart association has recommended a maximum of 6 tsp of sugar a day.  In the first label the sugar content comes in at 22g – which is about 5 ½ teaspoons of sugar. While selecting apasta sauce, choose one closer to 4g (1 tsp) of sugar per serving.

In today’s world, a world shrouded in false claims and deceptive advertising, it is quite easy to fall prey to seemingly ‘healthy’ products. To enjoy a plate of healthy guilt free pasta for dinner please keep the above in mind while selecting your next pasta sauce.

Arati Kalkat is a nutrition consultant who works with individuals and schools to achieve their health and wellness goals.

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