Friday, September 14, 2012

Reading the Label part II

Now for lesson two of our reading the label series. Let’s assume the product you picked up passed the ingredient check list. Now we are going to figure out how to decipher the tricks contained within the Nutrition Facts Label itself. But before we can do that, we first must set some guidelines for the most important nutrition information found within those labels. These include Fat and Sodium.

As we have seen, food companies go out of there way to make nutrition labels misleading when it comes to fats. They use three different units (calories, grams and percentages) on their labels but never tell you what percentage of calories in their product actually come from fat.

While the average intake of fat is roughly 35% of total calories on the Standard American Diet (or SAD) we actually only need around 10% and ideally most of that will be in the form of healthy essential fatty acids (EFAs) from foods like hemp, chia, and flax seeds as well as from nuts and avocados. According to Rip Essestyln, “When the percentage of fat calories in the diet exceeds 15 percent of caloric intake,” the risk of disease including cancer and diabetes greatly increases. Now if you eat a diverse whole food, plant-based diet, your diet will naturally average itself out so you will not need to worry about fat consumption. Assuming you are not pounding nuts and avocado with every meal, your total calorie intake will only consist of 10 or 12% fat. However, when it comes to eating processed foods, more vigilance is needed.

Again due to tricks and exploitations of labeling laws, a company is capable of hiding the real percentage of fat a product contains. They do this by comparing the fat content to weight rather than calories.  This is misleading because our diet is based upon calories. I’m going to use an example that Rip Esselstyne pointed out in his book. While I would never EVER recommend consuming animal milk, it does serve as a good example about how misleading packaging can be. (For one small reason why dairy milk should be avoided see my post here). How much fat is in a glass of 2% dairy milk? 

Right on the container it says “2% Reduced Fat Milk.” Common sense would tell us that this means only 2% of its calories come from fat. However, it is actually around 38%. I guess the industry thought that a cold glass of 38% fat was less appealing! 

How did we get that number? Well, the calories per serving are listed as 120. Now if you look below the top line you’ll see a few different numbers listed under “Total Fat.” These numbers are for all practical purposes useless, unless you have an intimate knowledge of the Nutrition Fact Label, that is. Still even so, 8% is significantly higher than the advertised 2%! Just another instance where you never trust anything on the front of the package! Instead focus your attention on Calories from Fat. The number is located directly to the right of Calories and in this case it is 45. Simply divide that number by Calories per Serving and WA-LA you have the percentage of fat per serving (45÷120= .375 or 37%). (Don’t worry, you weren’t the only one who had to use their iphone’s calculator!)

Another great example is the “healthy” Back to Nature “Stone Ground” Wheat crackers that I used in the last post. Here are their nutritional facts:

Okay so 20 Calories from Fat divided by 70 Calories per Serving and you get .28. I bet you wouldn’t have thought those crackers are a whooping 28% fat! Essentially, if you eat a full serving size of 5 crackers and 28% of them are fat, that essentially means you just ate 1.4 crackers where the calories come from pure fat. Do those crackers still sound good?

Making Life Easy: Here is the trick to make shopping easy. While we only need about 10% total fat a good rule of thumb is to keep your packaged products under 20% fat. Just pretend the calories are a bill at a restaurant and you want to leave the amount of fat as a tip. So, if a bill at your favorite restaurant came to $100 and you enjoyed the service, then ideally you should be leaving a $20 tip. The same principle applies to food. If a serving is 100 calories there should be no more than 20 Calories From Fat (CFF). Simply take the Serving Size Calories and move the decimal point one place to the left. So 100 calories becomes 10. Then double that number 10x2 =20. Hence we do not want more than 20 CFF. If the serving size is 150 calories we convert this to 15 then multiply it by 2 to get 30. There should not be more than 30 CFF in the product. If there is, put the product down, and slowly back away.


Just like fats, people who are SAD eaters (Standard American Diet), are overwhelmed with sodium. Sodium is an essential electrolyte mineral required for proper bodily functions. However, excess sodium can cause your blood to retain fluids, cause damage to your kidneys- which tries to filter out the sodium, may block your body from absorbing calcium and obviously has been linked to increase risk of hypertension. According to Jeff Novick, RD, we only want between 1,200-1,500 mgs of sodium every day. To put this in perspective, that is about 1 teaspoon of table salt. The average SAD eater gets between 3,000 – and 5,000. That is INSANE! Sodium occurs naturally in all foods. Yet this natural source of sodium comprises only 12% of total sodium intake on the Standard American Diet. On top of that, adding salt to home cooked food and while eating comprises only another 11%. That means the average Westerner is getting 77% of their total sodium intake from processed junk foods.

By simply being more careful we can avoid the health problems associated with too much sodium. Once again, however, we must be careful. When a product’s label reads “Reduced Sodium” all that means is that it has less than 25% of the regular version. However that does not mean the “reduced” version is safe! For instance, if a can of soup regularly has 1,100 mgs of sodium, 25% less “reduced sodium” still contains 820 mgs of sodium! That is almost your entire daily need in a single serving! If you are like me, you probably will eat the entire can. If it has two or three servings, congratulations, you’ve just maxed out your sodium needs for two or three days! 

I was surprised to realize how some products that I had used for years had dangerously high levels of sodium. San-J’s Organic Shoyu Soy Sauce has 960 mgs of sodium in one tablespoon! Even brands I thought were fool-proof like Dr. McDougall’s Right Foods contain far too much sodium. Let’s look at his Ready-to-Serve Lentil Soup. It has 115 calories per serving and only 5 CFF, so it’s only 4% fat which means it definitely passes out standards for fat content. However, if you go further down you will see it has 480 mgs of sodium. Then you notice that the box isn’t that large and yet it contains 2 servings. That means in one meal of “Right Foods” you just took in 960 mgs of sodium! That is 65% of your maximum recommendation.

Making Life Easy: Removing the excess sodium is surprisingly easy. Figuring out how much sodium you want in a product is simple. As a standard rule, keep the ratio between calories and sodium 1:1. Does this mean that Dr. McDougall’s soup would ideally have 480 calories? No, it’s obviously the reverse. Preferably it would only have 115 mgs of sodium per serving. If the ration is close, then the product is acceptable. So if the lentil soup had 130 mgs of sodium, it would earn a passing grade. I would even accept 150 mgs. Another good way of cutting the sodium from your life is to stop adding salt to everything you eat! Learn to enjoy the natural taste of food. Once your palate adjusts you'll be surprised how delicious food is without adding anything to it. By cutting out that additional 11% of sodium intake you will relieve some of the nutritional stress that you were placing on your body.

Even if you consider yourself an endurance athlete, cutting out the excess salt can be beneficial for you. I trained throughout the summer often times riding over 100 miles and running between 20 and 30  miles on a low sodium diet and I never ran into any problems. If you are doing really intense workouts, however, a training coach for Livestrong suggests taking 1 gram of sodium per hour of exercise. Just remember this is much easier to get than it sounds!

Now that you know how to quickly decipher a label go out and give it a try. I’m willing to bet many products will surprise you.


As a reminder, I am not a registered dietitian or a doctor. These are simply my opinions on food and healthy eating. 

ps- a quick heads up, my next post is going to include BYOL's first prize give away, so be sure to check back soon so you don't miss out! 

Sources: Jeff Novick, DVD lecture “Should I Eat That
Rip Esselstyn: The Engine 2 Diet
Dr. Douglas N Graham: 80/10/10Diet 
See also