Understanding Nutrition Facts is the Key to Clarity
It’s one thing to know you need to cut down on trans fats, watch out for empty carbs, keep your calorie count low, or avoid HFCS—but it’s another thing entirely to achieve, even when we pick foods that are ostensibly healthier alternatives. What does it mean for a soda to be ‘diet’, a butter to be ‘lite’, or a cookie to be ‘fat free’? Today, we’ll discuss some of the most common terms you’ll find when foods are looking to boast their healthiness, what to expect from those items, and how to avoid eating garbage disguised as goodness. So here is a quick guide to understanding nutrition facts labels.
Diet or Lite
These aren’t meaningless terms, but they’re close to it. Generally speaking, products bearing this labels can be expected to offer fewer calories than their non-diet or non-lite versions, but that doesn’t necessarily make them healthy. The gap between the normal product and the ‘diet’ versions can be huge, such as the gap between soda (100+ calories per 8 oz) and diet soda (0 calories), or microscopic—even a 10 calorie difference can prompt a ‘lite’ labeling.
Calorie, Fat, Sugar, Salt-Free
If it has these labels, there’s either no fat/sugar/etc., or little enough to make no difference according to the FDA. Calorie-free can mean ‘up to 5 calories’, sugar or fat up to .5g, etc. Pay close attention, however; fat-free often means ‘high carb’ and vice versa, as a product strives to make up for lost flavor.
Low-fat, Sugar, Salt
With these labels, you can expect to safely eat several servings without crossing over the RDA; like ‘free’ products, they often contain high amounts of other unhealthy substances in avoiding the one they’re labeled for. Strangely, ‘low’ products tend to come out ahead of ‘free’ products for just this reason, as fewer corners are cut in pursuit of zeroing out a particular substance. It’s easier to make a product have less fat and still taste good than to make one with no fat taste good, after all.
No Sugar Added
Pay close attention to the wording on this one; it doesn’t mean there’s no sugar to be found in the product, just none not naturally present in the ingredients. This can still be a high-sugar, high carb, unhealthy food, but it’s just as often a truly superior offering. Make sure to take a close look at the label and determine how much sugar’s really in there. If you’re looking to avoid non-nutritive sweeteners such as sucralose and aspartame, look for those as well, as they’re not technically ‘sugars’ and thus can be added at will to products bearing this label.
No Trans Fats
Technically speaking, products with this label can contain trans fats, those most unhealthy of fats—up to .5g worth per serving. That’s not much when you’re sticking to the recommended serving, but with the dubious serving sizes presented by many products, watch out. Do your due diligence on items likely to contain trans fats.