Sara Shipley, Nutrition student at the University of Central Oklahoma
When you grocery shop, do you bother to read nutrition facts? When you scan the labels- what exactly are you looking to find? Total Calories? Grams of Protein, Fat, Carbohydrates or Sodium? The list of ingredients? Serving size?
Reading the Nutrition Fact panel on a package of food is a step in the right direction to mindful eating, and according to a study by Washington State University Economist Bidisha Mandal, reading food labels aids weight loss efforts. Mandal’s research shows that reading labels contributes to a greater chance of successful weight loss in those who do not exercise. However, reading the nutrition fact panel is only as valuable as understanding the information. And if you want to benefit from label reading, it is imperative that you know what to look for on a label. The percentage values, for instance, are not a ‘one-size fits all’ recommendation, and the order of nutrients are not necessarily listed in the greatest priority. In short- it’s no surprise that people glaze over when attempting to skim the labels. It’s basically a confusing cluster of numbers, unless you know what each value means to you.
Recently, a research study was published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association investigating consumer’s behavior while grocery shopping. Previous research has been conducted on the subject, but this research was based on the subject’s perception of how thoroughly they read labels, rather than the actual amount they read. The researchers, D.J. Graham PhD and R.W. Jeffery PhD, from the University of Minnesota sought a more thorough approach with the use of eye-scanning devices strategically placed in the supermarket. They wanted to directly measure visual attention, and relate the data to perceived behavior reported from subjects. The results support the premise that although consumer’s reportedly read labels, only a fraction of people take the time to actually decipher the nutrition facts. According to the study, people only look at the first 4-5 lines. Well bad news folks- you’re missing out. Although serving size is relevant, there are so many additional, pertinent nutrients listed below. You might be thinking, ‘of course- why bother reading if you’re not going to actually pay attention to the entire panel?’ Well, how many times have you accidentally snagged the wrong flavored soup or yogurt by mistake? Though the name is usually plastered to the front of the can or carton, but habitually grabbing the familiar package is an honest mistake. So, what exactly are people missing at the very bottom, even below the fact panel? The entire list of ingredients. The problem with all of this is: if the average American is claiming to read the nutrition facts but too lazy to scan down 6-7 lines, their efforts are futile. Now, if at this point you’re thinking- ‘I don’t want to read that laundry list of items on every package I buy.’ You may want to reconsider consuming such processed foods.
Reading the nutrition fact panel helps you make an educated decision about what you are eating. With the national average obesity rate at an alarming 33%, according to the CDC- people should be making more conscious choices.
Each person’s recommended dietary needs will vary, but this is my simple approach to reading nutrition fact panels:
- Look at the Serving size and the number of servings in a package. Each ingredient value listed thereafter is according to a single serving.
- Look at Saturated fat: eat minimally (<7% total daily calories, avg. 16 grams)
- Look for Fiber: aim for 15-25 grams/day
- Look for Protein: aim for 120-130 grams/day (depending on your weight, physical activity and health status – most adults should aim for 1.2 – 2.0 grams protein per kg bodyweight)
- Look for Sodium: a healthy daily amount ranges from 1500-2300 mg
- Look at Sugar: some very healthy foods are naturally high in sugar (fruit, dried fruit and dairy for instance) therefore, though you should be mindful of your sugar intake, it isn’t necessary or realistic to cut all sugar out of your diet (and for the athlete certain kinds of sugar, consumed at the right times can improve various aspects of athletic performance and recovery).
As you probably suspect- I read the labels. I want to know exactly what I am putting in my body. Likewise, if you’re training /regularly active, why absent-mindedly ruin your efforts with processed junk? You may not even realize the detriment to your diet because you thought all along that ‘multigrain’ crackers were the high-fiber choice. Reading the label should really be half of your efforts while grocery shopping. Try to ‘shop the perimeter’ where the produce, vegetables, fresh fish and meats are offered. These items usually do not have nutrition fact panels, because they are whole foods. Shop for whole foods that have a single ingredient and it takes all the confusion out of grocery shopping and reading nutrition fact panels.