Nutrition Labels – How to Avoid Unhealthy Foods

Fact: 80% of all the food products available in supermarkets contain refined sugar. 

Over the last few years, I’ve been reducing the amount of processed foods I buy. Instead, I make my own salad dressings, ketchups and mayonnaise (recipes here). 

I also eat whole cereals instead of refined breakfast cereals, make my own soup instead of eating canned soup (soup recipes here), eat more fruit and less bread, and make more raw desserts (recipe here) instead of buying ready-made cakes and sweets.

The healthiest foods are usually those that don’t come with a nutrition label: whole foods, seeds, nuts, and legumes.

But, in case you need to buy processed food, it’s important to learn how to read nutrition labels to understand exactly what you are buying.

A lot of products are marketed as healthy when, in fact, they are loaded with sugar. Products like granola, salad dressing, sauces, juices, soft drinks, and breakfast cereals are all good examples. These are high in sugar, low in fiber, and some are also high in salt.

We are eating way too much sugar, and most of the sugar consumed in the U.S. and the rest of the world comes from sweetened beverages and soft-drinks. A large percentage of added sugar also comes from processed food, and yet a lot of people don’t know about it. 

Nutrition labels are not quick or easy to read. In fact, they are unnecessarily complicated which makes discovering the truth about the food you eat very difficult. Maybe the food industries like it this way?  

How to Quickly Choose Healthy Food at Supermarket

Five quick and simple steps:

1st –  Reduce your consumption of processed food. Preferentially select food that doesn’t have a nutrition label: seeds, nuts, whole foods, and whole grains.

2nd – Avoid high sugar foods.  (We will show how to identify these later)

3rd – Avoid foods that have long ingredients lists. 

4th – Avoid foods that are high in sodium. 

5th – Avoid foods that are high cholesterol and saturated fats. 

If we must buy processed food, we should try to get “not so bad” products:

On nutrition labels, look for:

  • More potassium than sodium
  • More fiber and less sugar
  • Fewer ingredients

Nutrition Labels

To learn how to read nutrition labels, let’s start with an example; the number one best-selling breakfast cereal in America: Honey Nut Cheerios (source here ).

 The Honey Nut Cheerios cover

Our Example: Honey Nut Cheerios

I’ve created two ways for you to learn how to read nutrition labels easily.

Complete version – We will go through all the items on the Cheerios nutrition label (recommended). Click here to scroll directly to that section. 

Quick version – How to quickly scan nutrition labels at the supermarket to know if a food is healthy. Click here to scroll there. 

How to Read Nutrition Labels – Complete Version

Let’s divide the Nutrition Facts in five parts from top to bottom.

nutrition label 5 sections

Sample of Nutrition Label

1. Serving Size 

Serving size ¾ cup (28 grams)

cheerios serving size

When I was a kid I ate breakfast cereals, but I didn’t know how much I was eating. So, one day, I measured my breakfast and it was around 1 ½ cups, or 56 grams, that’s double the serving size listed on the nutrition label.

That means we need to multiply each nutrient by two to get the real values.

Note: Take a minute and measure in grams or cups how much you or your kids usually eat for breakfast. I’ll bet it’s not the standard ¾ cup serving size! 

2. Calories

Counting calories and not understanding where calories come from is one way that food companies have found to trick us. 

cheerios calories

110 calories from one serving of Cheerios does not produce the same effect in our body’s as the same number of calories from a mid-size banana. The results, in terms of health and the quality of energy produced, are very different, both short term and long term. 

bananas nutrition value

The only thing that 28 grams (one portion) of Cheerios and a mid-size banana have in common is the number of calories.

The only problem with eating bananas every day is that you might get sick of the flavor but, in terms of health, you would be totally ok as bananas contain good levels of potassium, fiber and natural sugar to give you sustained energy for the day.

If you eat Cheerios twice a day and every day, you will gain weight, and increase your chances of developing insulin resistance, which can lead to type 2 diabetes.

Not all calories are the same. I’ve compared Cheerios with one banana to better explain the very common mistake that people who only look at number of calories usually make.

3. Nutrients

Total Fat 1.5 grams

Before we dive into the fat, let’s look at what is meant by Percentage Daily Value.

The percentages shown in the first column represents the percentage of each nutrient in a single serving compared to the daily calories recommended per day (2000 calories).

cheerios nutrients fats

Note: 2000 calories is an arbitrary number, and you may need to consume more or less depending on your age, gender and activity level. 

But, as I’ve said before, I don’t like the idea of counting calories because where you get your calories from is just as important as how many you consume. 

Always pick whole and plant-based foods over animal or any kind of processed food.

As you can see at the bottom of the nutrition label, the recommendation from the USDA is 65 grams of fat per day based on 2000 calories.

cheerios recommended amounts FDA

Let’s look at our example…

So, 1.5 grams of fat in one serving of cheerios is 2% of the daily amount recommended of 65 grams by the USDA.

Confusing? Hell, yes!

How to read it faster 

When you look at the percentages and you see a high number (higher than 20%), check which nutrient we are talking about. High levels of fiber and potassium are not a problem, and rarely happens as most processed foods are very low in both these things.

But, if you find a high percentage value for fat, sodium, and total carbs, have a better look as you may be holding a high fat and high added sugar product.

Saturated fats

No saturated fat.

cheerios nutrients fats

The American Heart Association recommends a low consumption (11 to 13 grams per day) of saturated fats from dairy products, animals, and plants to reduce the chances of raising cholesterol in the blood to lower the chances of heart disease. (source here )

Confusingly, studies have shown how coconuts are high in saturated fat but also have many health benefits. Natural saturated fat is probably ok, but processed saturated fat is not. Saturated fat is also high in calories, so it’s not a good idea to eat too much if you want to lose or avoid gaining weight. 

Trans fats

Trans fats are created industrially by man, and are commonly found in fast food. It raises the levels of bad cholesterol in the blood. Completely avoid trans fats.  

Unsaturated Fat

Commonly found in salmon, sardines, avocado, olives, nuts and corn, polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats are very different to saturated fats.

These are good fats and healthier alternatives to saturated and trans fats that may lower your insulin levels and help improve your blood cholesterol.

Cheerios have about one gram of polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats, possibly from the whole grain oats listed in the ingredients. We will discuss the ingredients list in a second.

cheerios nutrients fats

Cholesterol

This breakfast cereal contains no cholesterol – 0mg.

cheerios nutrients cholesterol

It’s important to understand that the number shown for this item (cholesterol) does not mean that after you eat and absorb the food you will get the same amount of cholesterol. Eating sugar has been shown to increase cholesterol levels – even though sugar is free from cholesterol. 

To avoid the chances of high “bad” cholesterol we must pay attention to what type of fats (previous section) we are eating. Trans fats will raise “bad” cholesterol while unsaturated fats like olive oil and avocado are good fats that help reduce your “bad” cholesterol.

So, have a look at the cholesterol levels, but mainly look at what type of fats the food contains.

Sodium

The American Heart Association recommends a maximum of 2400 mg of salt per day.

cheerios nutrients Sodium

Looking at the percentage daily value, we should buy products with less than 5%. Anything with more than 20% is very high in salt.

Pay special attention to breads, chips, pizza, soups, sandwiches, pretzels, popcorn, crackers, hamburgers, and also breakfast cereals. 

As you can see, Cheerios contain 170mg, which is 7% of the amount recommended for one day. If you eat three servings for breakfast, which is very common, you’re getting 21% of your recommended daily sodium intake in first hour of your day, and that’s a lot.

Potassium

This mineral helps to prevent high blood pressure, heart attacks, and strokes. The problem is that the worldwide diet is high in sodium but low in potassium. Add a couple of bananas a day to your diet to easily add more potassium to your diet. Potassium helps balance out your sodium intake. 

cheerios nutrients potassium

“The recommended intake of potassium for adolescents and adults is 4,700 mg/day. The recommended intakes for potassium for children 1 to 3 years of age is 3,000 mg/day, 4 to 8 years of age is 3,800 mg/day, and 9 to 13 years of age is 4,500 mg/day.” by HHS.Gov

At the bottom of the nutrition label (where the recommendation daily amounts are expressed) you can see that the potassium recommendation is 3500mg.

cheerios recommended amounts FDA

As you can see in our example, Cheerios contains only 3% of the recommended potassium. This means it’s lower than 5%, making Cheerios a  low potassium food.

Carbohydrates

cheerios nutrients carbs

Dietary Fiber

The American Heart Association recommends 25 grams of fiber per day (like it says on the bottom of this Cheerios nutrition label under the recommended nutrients intake per day).

Cheerios contain two grams of fiber per serving to total of 8% of the recommended amount per day. This is not bad as most of the processed food is usually very low in fiber. However, even this decent amount of fiber does not make Cheerios healthy, as we’ll see next… 

Sugars

The American Heart Association recommends 25 grams (6 teaspoons) for women and 38 grams (or 9 teaspoons) of sugar per day.

Cheerios contain 9 grams per serving. 

The sugar industry has found ways not to show the percentage of the recommended daily amount on nutrition labels. If they had to, that number would be  23% for men and 36% for women, from only in one serving. When you see it as a percentage you can easily see that this it’s too much sugar.

A quick way to see if a product contains too much sugar is:

  • Get the grams per serving, in this case 28 grams
  • Get the grams of sugar, which for Cheerios is 9 grams

If you divide 9 / 28 = 0,32 * 100 = 32 percent of Cheerios is made of sugar. That’s more than one third, and that’s a lot.

Protein

The American Heart Association recommends 46 to 56 grams of protein per day.

Cheerios are low in protein, but that is not a problem. Adding diary or non-dairy milk to cereal increases protein intake, and it’s easy enough to eat enough protein by including it in your lunch and dinner. 

cheerios nutrients protein

 

Ingredients List

The ingredients list is in order of the weight used, from the highest to the lowest, and the first being the highest. 

Tips:

If sugar is in top three, that’s not good at all. 

If the list is too big, it usually means that it’s highly processed with a lot of chemicals.

If you see a lot of names that you don’t recognize, they’re probably sugar names. Food companies have 61 different names for sugar to disguise the presence of “sugar” in the ingredients list. Learn more about this topic here.    

Cheerios Ingredients list

How to Read Nutrition Labels Fast

I know that time is often a premium, and not everyone has time to spend carefully reading every food label in your shopping basket. Luckily, you can also review the food you are about to eat quickly and easily. 

Here’s a quick way to understand the nutrients in the food you are about to buy…

1st – Serving size

Get the number. For Cheerios it’s 28 grams

2nd – Sugars: 5% or less 

Cheerios contain nine grams of sugar in a serving size of 28 grams. That means that around 32% of the product is made of sugar. That’s clearly a high sugar food.

And you, or your kid, probably eats more than 28 grams of cheerios for breakfast and may even eat double this amount, just like I did when I was a kid. That’s 18 grams of added sugar just for breakfast. 

Remember: The recommended amount of added sugar for an adult per day is 36 grams for men and 25 grams for women.

3rd – Check the ingredients list – less the better

The ingredient are listed in order of the weight used, from the highest to the lowest, and the first being the highest.

In our Cheerios example, we can see whole grain oats at the top, and that’s good. But, the second ingredient is sugar. That’s already an indicator that this is a high sugar product.

  • Sugar is in top three means it’s a high sugar food
  • Fewer ingredients are better
  • Words you don’t know are probably different names for sugar (the 61 different sugar names the food industry uses to disguise sugar here). 

4th – Sodium – 5% less

Cheerios contains 160mg of sodium per serving. We should pick products with 5% or less of the daily value of sodium. (I explain what this % of daily value is here). 

Cheerios contain 7% and you will most certainly eat more (at least I did), so if you eat double, that’s double the salt and totals 14% in just one meal.

5th – Fats

Trans-fast must be 0g (very few products contain trans fats but always check).

Saturated fats generally should be low (the percentage should be less than 5%). Unless it’s a whole plant food like coconut.

No Sugar Diet – Avoid High Sugar Foods

Worldwide, high sugar diets are causing a pandemic of metabolic diseases: type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, heart diseases, dementia, obesity and overweight. 

Our bodies love the naturally occurring sugar in fruit, combined with the fiber. But the refined sugar added to soft-drinks, beverages, sweets, and most processed food in general causes a lot of health problems. I’ve covered all the diseases caused by a continuous high sugar diet, and you can check it here.

Our best option is to avoid or at least start to reduce the amount of sugar we eat every day. 

Reading nutrition labels is the best way to discover exactly what type of food we have at home and which foods not to buy.

One of the best things I did for my health was to cut out refined sugar from my diet two years ago. 

I did 20 No-Sugar days to do a total cleanse of added sugar. I felt so much better. I lost weight, my mental focus improved, my mood was better, and my anxiety was drastically reduced.

I highly recommend that you at least give it a try. You don’t have to take my word for it; experience the benefits yourself. It’s a simple and totally free challenge.

Find more about my 20 No Sugar Days Challenge here.

 

start your no sugar diet cover

Join here

References

Using the Nutrition Facts Label: A How-To Guide for Older Adults

Use the Nutrition Facts Label to Reduce Your Intake of Sodium in Your Diet

AICR HealthTalk

Lowering our Sodium-to-Potassium Ratio to Reduce Stroke Risk

Understanding Food Nutrition Labels

USDA Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2005

Protein and Heart Health

 

A quick scan allows you to distinguish between good and crap food.

About Author

Diogo has lived and worked in many places around the world including Madrid, Berlin, São Vicente (Cape Verde), Indonesia and Macau. Traveling, he says, is the best way to learn about himself and the people he has met along the way. With his degree in IT, and after seven years working as a web programmer, Diogo has stepped out of his comfort zone and used the experiences he gained during his travels to move into web design, SEO, and content creation. He loves to tell stories and inspire people to follow their dreams, but he knows that to do this effectively, he must first live those stories himself first  

"There is only one corner of the universe you can be certain of improving, and that's your own self"

Aldous Huxley

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