I am notorious for reading the nutrition label on everything I buy. If there’s a nutrition label on there, it’s up for inspection. So why do I do it, and why do I think it so important to know how to read nutrition labels?
When you learn how to read a nutrition label, you will get an understanding of what’s in the product you’re buying, as well as the nutritional breakdown. This is useful for those of us who count carbs (due to dietary choices or for diabetics like me who need to in order to dose their insulin correctly), have allergies or intolerances, or who want to avoid certain additives.
The 5 steps to reading nutrition labels
Even a food as simple as yogurt is actually not simple at all when you start comparing nutrition labels, so let me take you through an example that most can relate to: Facing the wall of different yogurt options in the dairy aisle. Welcome to the yogurt face-off 😀
I’ve chosen two Greek Non-fat Strawberry yogurts from Danone-Oikos. The first is the Greek Nonfat Yogurt, and the second their newer option, the Triple Zero Greek Nonfat Yogurt. You can see each nutrition label below (as they are listed on their website), so let’s have a look:
Greek Nonfat Strawberry Yogurt
Triple Zero Greek Nonfat Strawberry Yogurt
In the United States, product nutrition is based on portion size, and not per 100 grams like in most other countries. That means that you need to pay attention to the serving size so that you know you are making a fair comparison when choosing between products.
Both of the yogurts I’m comparing have a serving size of 150 grams, which equals one container. So the nutrition on the labels is comparable 1:1. If one had been a 200-gram container, you would have to pull out your calculator to compare the two products.
The next comparison is the total number of calories in a serving. If you are trying to reduce your calorie intake, just looking at the total calories is definitely a good place to start, but don’t choose a product based on the calorie content alone. Where those calories come from is just as important.
If you are unsure how to work out your daily calorie needs, check out this post to learn how.
Now we are getting to the good part! This is the part that shows what those calories we just discussed consist off. For starters, I suggest you focus on fat (total and saturated), carbohydrates (fiber and sugars), and protein. If you are looking to reduce your sodium intake, that might also be a good value to consider too.
When I buy yogurt (and almost anything else), I generally choose one with low fat, low carb (especially low sugar), and high protein content. Based on those criteria, the Triple Zero Greek Nonfat Yogurt comes across as the best choice. Let’s break it down:
Fat: These products have zero fat, however, if they weren’t fat-free, you might want to choose the one with the least saturated fat.
Saturated fats are ones that are solid at room temperature, and mostly include fat from animals (including dairy). Diets high in saturated fats have for a long time been considered high-risk when it comes to artery clogging and heart problems. However, some saturated fats from non-animal sources (like nuts and coconut oil) don’t have these issues and are generally considered healthy. An easy guideline is, therefore, to go for fat from plants, nuts, and fish rather than fat from animals.
Healthy fat in moderate amounts is an essential part of your diet, but it really shouldn’t be the main source of calories in a yogurt. You can read my post about My Favorite Healthy Fats for more information about the best fats to eat.
Carbohydrates: The total carbohydrates in these two products are very similar. However, in the traditional Greek Nonfat Yogurt pretty much all of the 19 grams of carbs come from sugar, while in the Triple Zero Greek Nonfat Yogurt only 7 grams come from sugar. The remaining carbs come from fiber, which, for the most part, is indigestible and won’t impact blood sugars, so the net sugar content is significantly more favorable in the Triple Zero Greek Nonfat Yogurt.
This is important knowledge for everybody but especially for insulin dependent diabetics, since they shouldn’t take insulin for all of the 15 grams of carbs listed. I will often pick a product with more total carbs but less sugar over a product with fewer total carbs but more sugar.
Protein: When comparing protein content, I generally just choose the product with the highest level. Even most bread, cereal, and processed foods have protein, and that’s what can help you feel full for hours. If you are active and don’t have any liver or kidney problems, you really can’t get too much protein from a normal diet.
I have written a list of My Favorite Protein Sources that also includes a lot of good recipes!
The percentages (%DV)
For each item on the label, you can see Percentage Daily Values (%DV) listed. The %DV refers to the FDA guidelines for daily calorie consumption. Since they have to generalize, they have chosen 2,000 calories as the DV baseline, which consist of 50g protein, 65g fat, 20g saturated fat, 300g carbohydrates, and 25g fibers.
If you have read any of my posts about nutrition, you will know I don’t really follow the FDA guidelines. I think 50g protein is too little, especially if you work out and need the protein for muscle building and recovery. 300g carbohydrates is also a lot more than what I would recommend, especially for people with diabetes. Instead, I use the guidelines from Tobias’ post about How Much Protein, Fat, and Carbs You Should Eat to create a meal plan that works for my fitness goals.
The main benefit of looking at the DV% is, in my opinion, to make sure that the product doesn’t have too much sodium. A lot of processed foods are loaded with sodium (a serving of white bread can contain almost 10% of your recommended daily value), so it’s worth keeping an eye on.
I actually think this is one of the most important parts of the nutrition label, and something you should consider reading first. If you are allergic to anything or have a food intolerance, you’re probably reading nutrition labels already.
The ingredients list doesn’t only tell you what’s in the product, but also gives you an idea of the ratio of the ingredients, since they are listed in descending order of weight (from most to least). So if you pick up a yogurt and the first ingredient isn’t some sort of milk product, I suggest you put it down and back away.
What catches my eye in our yogurt comparison is that the third and fourth ingredients in the Greek Nonfat Yogurt are sugar and fructose. These ingredients are both something I shy away from unless I’m having a slice of cake.
Sugar and fructose will make your blood sugars spike dramatically, and, in my opinion, don’t belong in a yogurt. The Triple Zero Greek Nonfat Yogurt, however, is sweetened with a small amount of stevia, which is the natural sweetener I prefer (as you can read in my Guide To Natural and Artificial Sweeteners). And how do I know it’s a small amount? Well because it’s listed almost at the end of the ingredient list.
Why it’s important to know how to read nutrition labels
If you just looked at the total calories (or didn’t look at all), the two yogurts look the same and you might have picked the Greek Nonfat Yogurt, which, in my opinion, is the least healthy of the two.
The Triple Zero Greek Nonfat Yogurt gives you more protein and fewer carbs for the same amount of calories. It also has less sugar, more fiber, and fewer dodgy ingredients.
Of course, the last question is how it tastes, but that is a personal preference that I will leave completely up to you!
If you want to read the latest FDA guidelines, you can find them here.
Suggested next post: Count Calories, Not Just Carbs