It took me years to actually learn how to read a nutrition label in a way that didn’t overwhelm or confuse me. As a child, I never paid attention to nutrition labels and really just focused on what food my parents gave me to eat and what my friends were eating at the lunch table. If it sounded or looked good, I ate it. I didn’t have much regard for the quality, nutritional value or anything else about the food.
Then in high school and college I began paying attention to the calories on the label and I decided on what to eat based on what had the lowest number of calories. I had no regard for the ingredients or anything else besides that number on the top left hand corner of a label. This was also the most brainwashing way to look at food for me. I was stuck on calories, stuck on counting numbers in everything and I was pretty much miserable while doing so. What fun is having dessert if you are worried about how many calories are in it?! Not to mention a 100 calorie pack did not fill me up. It left me hungry and cranky. I remember eating the cheese doodle ones with my lunch everyday in high school (HA!).
Now things are a bit different. Today, I pick up a product and the first thing I look at is the ingredient list. I am no longer just looking at the number of calories or the percentages on the back of the product. After peeking at the ingredients, I glance over the nutritional facts and info to get details about the nutritional breakdown.
I know it can be so confusing to actually know what to look for and what to stay away from in both food and beverages. There is a lot of conflicting advice given in the nutrition world on what is good or bad for you. And while I am by no means an RD or Nutritionist, I do have a solid idea of what I want my food to have in it and what I try to limit.
In this blog post I am walking you guys through how I read a nutrition label. This isn’t professional advice or the only way to approach things, it is just how I go about reading a nutritional label. Based on many messages, emails and questions about how I choose what to eat and if it is good for me, I am excited to be putting this all together for you. Use this as a guide, not me telling you what is good or bad or the only way to eat…that isn’t my style over here.
You will learn what I look for in products, what I try to avoid in products and what some of the numbers even mean. I’m not saying how I read a label is the best way or the only way, but it has worked for me over the past few years. I don’t find it overwhelming anymore trying to figure out if something is actually considered “healthy”.
To help make things easier for us, I am using Perfect Bar’s nutrition label as an example in this post, particularly the peanut butter flavor. It is one of my favorite products to snack on as you see on my Instagram. I have been eating them since before I even started blogging (they helped get me off so many heavily processed junk bars). Perfect Bar is also one of the most common products you guys inquire about and you genuinely want to know why I love eating them so much.
So let’s hop to it. Let me know if you guys have any questions as well, happy to address them as best as I can.
Please also note that I am not saying that how I read a label is right way and the only way. I want you to do what works for YOU. I’m not an expert, this is just how I, as a consumer, tackle the nutritional labels.
First let’s take a peek and Perfect Bar’s label…
- First things first I glance over at the ingredients list
- What is even in the product? When I look at the back of a Peanut Butter Perfect Bar label, the first thing I notice is that the ingredient list is quite long. This isn’t a bad thing if the list is filled with wholesome ingredients that we can pronounce. The first ingredient is organic peanut butter (sold). I also see that the entire ingredient list is organic, which is personally very important to me. I also look for products that are non-GMO. The ingredient list in a Perfect Bar is longer purely because they pack 20+ superfoods, like organic flax seed, organic celery and organic spinach into ONE bar. The crazy part is that you don’t taste anything besides the peanut butter-y goodness that Perfect Bar wants us to taste. They sneak in a handful of wholesome ingredients without jeopardizing the taste and flavor of the bar. I try to stay away from artificial flavorings, high fructose corn syrup, GMO corn, amongst a handful of other things (we can do a whole post on that soon!).
- Next I look at the sugar content of the product (aka how sweet is this?) and the source of sugar
- Ah, yes sugar. Sugar gets quite the bad rap these days and while I personally limit my intake of refined sugars, I do have honey, dates, fruits maple syrup or coconut sugars in products. Basically any unrefined sugar has my name on it. And contrary to what many may think, my diet is not that high in sugar, but it also isn’t low. I can’t tell you how much sugar I eat in a day as it varies, but I do aim to eat natural forms of it. Perfect Bar is sweetened with organic honey, or for plant-based flavors, organic dates. While the sugar content is on the high side, the fat, protein and fiber content ensure that my blood sugar is more stable, than say, eating an oreo. I also like using honey in recipes and products because it is antimicrobial, provides an antioxidant boost and is filled with vitamins, minerals and enzymes. So yes, there are 18 grams of sugar in a Peanut Butter Perfect Bar but with the other ingredients as mentioned above, I am personally okay with eating the honey or dates. The balance of whole food ingredients, protein and complex carbs (we will get to those soon) allows me to eat a Perfect Bar and not feel a blood sugar spike after. The leave me satisfied and full.
- Now comes the fatty part of the goods
- For so long I feared fats no matter the source. Spoiler alert: the right kind of fats, won’t make you fat. Things are a bit different now and while I’m not preaching to eat a “healthy fat diet,” the truth is I eat a lot of fats everyday. I don’t count my fat intake but I do know I eat it throughout the day. I avoid trans fat and aim to get my good fats from nuts, seeds, fish, grass-fed meats, and oils like avocado or coconut. I’m not going into the details of each type of fat, as I would prefer you to chat about that with a trusted RD or expert, but when it comes to my own personal fat intake, I focus on quality not quantity. The type of fat in American cheese isn’t the same as the fat content of an avocado. I like to consume more wholesome sources of fat. Brands like Perfect Bar, with fat that comes from nuts and seeds, is my kinda fatty delicious goodness. So when it comes to the nutrition label, I care less about the grams of fat listed and more about the sources of fat. And this information comes from the ingredient list!
- Let’s take a glance over to the protein and fiber content
- Without a decent amount of fiber and protein in something, there is no way I am going to be full. I need and crave both plant-based and animal sources of protein throughout the day. It helps stabilize my blood sugar level and I love that the Peanut Butter Perfect Bar has 17 grams of whole food protein and 4 grams of fiber. When I eat a Perfect Bar, I am full for much longer than when I eat a smaller bar with fewer nutrients (especially protein). I make sure that the protein is high quality and if it is animal protein, that it is grass-fed and organic as well. I find that when I don’t add some form of protein or fiber to my eats, I’m hungry way too quickly afterwards.
- Next up I take a look at the sodium content
- Incase you haven’t noticed yet, I am not a fan of salty foods. There are a few things I save my daily salty intake for like bone broth and tortilla chips, but for the most part I don’t consume much salt or high sodium foods. I am usually way too thirsty all day or night after. When I eat out at restaurants I am always asking for no salt added on top (granted I doubt they listen) because I physically do not feel well when I consume an excess of salt. I love that Perfect Bar has only 60 mg of sodium. I don’t need 0 mg, but I cannot eat foods with 100s mg of sodiums daily. This is in part to my mom never putting salt on the table or cooking much with it. My palate usually doesn’t go for it.
- Then I like to see the deal with the carbohydrates
- A few years ago, I was petrified of carbs. I also didn’t really understand what a carb was or the difference between complex carbohydrates and simple carbohydrates. In my brain, bread was the only type of carb. When I learned that I actually need complex carbs for energy, that was a game changer. I eat bananas, sweet potatoes and other carb-y foods daily. Do I pay attention to much else within that? Not really. But I know that eating a piece of sprouted toast is better for me than a piece of white bread. Peanut Butter Perfect Bar has 26 grams of carbs in a bar, mostly in the form of complex carbs. Those complex carbs supply my body with the energy that I need daily.
- Lastly, I take a peek at the calories in the product and its serving size
- Calories are so 2008 you guys (kidding but not really). Believe it or not this is the last thing I look at when picking up a product. I pay a lot more attention to the ingredients and have found that this approach works best for me. I’d rather eat something filled with whole food protein, unrefined sugars and ingredients I can pronounce than a 100-calorie pack that has no substance. I don’t fear calories like I used to. Looking at the 330 calories in a Perfect Bar doesn’t scare me. I’m not adding nut butter or granola on it. I eat it whole for a snack. If I add it to my yogurt, I usually use half. I’m not saying that everyone should be eating a calorie dense snack everyday but as someone who is on their feet in the kitchen all day and lives in a city (AKA walks a lot), I need my fuel!
How do we feel? Any sense of relief and less stress around a nutritional label? Again, I am not an expert, I am sharing my views and opinions as a consumer. This is what works for me when I am looking at products to eat or drink!