As consumers, we find ourselves facing a variety of goods and food products that tempt us or create dilemmas every day. What is best for me or my child? Is this good for my health? Should I buy A instead of B food? Of course, we can never be completely certain about the best choice, however, reading a product’s food label is the first step to find the answers.
By regulation of the European Council, from 2011 on all standard foods must have a nutrition label stating the ingredients and nutritional value of the product. As simple as it is to read the ingredients, we might struggle to understand the nutritional value. The first thing we should check when looking at a food label are the two columns that state the nutritional content per 100gr/ml of the product as well as per serving, which is described by the producer, for example a serving of bread equals to one slice. In particular, in the first distribution, we can identify the % content of nutrients, specifically of carbohydrates, proteins and fat, eg 30gr. carbohydrate in this distribution corresponds to 30%. When we seek information about carbohydrates and fat, the following is what we should read:
- Dietary fiber: It is expected that the fiber content will most likely not be very high. However, the most preferable among two similar products is the one with the higher content, since it is proven that fiber help better regulate the digestive system, as well as promote overall health. ATTENTION! If we know that there is some issue with our gastrointestinal system (e.g. Irritable bowel syndrome), it is better to consume mediocre amounts of fiber, since they might cause irritation and discomfort.
- Sugars/Added sugar: This is the type of carbohydrates that we want to avoid. Similarly, the best among two products is the one with the lowest content. However, in this case we can keep in mind a specific number. The amount of sugars/added sugar in 100gr/ml should be less than 5gr.
- Polyunsaturated & Monounsaturated: These two categories are the good type of fat, since besides energy, they provide additional benefits to the body. These categories include the omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, which protect the cardiovascular system, strengthen the brain and protect overall good health.
- Saturated: This is the first of two “bad” fat categories. According to the World Health Organization, the consumption of saturated fat is recommended to be lower than 10% of our daily energy intake. Thus, for someone that needs 2000 kcal daily this percentage equals to 200 kcal or about 20gr of saturated fats.
- Trans/Hydrogenated: This is the second “bad” category. There are no numerical values for this one, simply because zero consumption is recommended. In 2015 the European Commission stipulated that both its use in food production and its consumption should be as small as possible, with the ultimate goal of eliminating it completely.
- An additional ingredient that we should check for in a food label is the added salt/sodium, which, once more has no numerical cutoff value and should be avoided.
Finally, the caloric content of a food product should be the one that guides us when we do not have much time to read the whole label. In this case, we should check the distribution per serving. The more calories (kcal) it contains per serving, the more likely it is that it contains higher amounts of fat and lower of fiber and water. Certainly, we cannot compare dissimilar products, it makes sense that even though a yogurt and a cereal bar have completely different composition, they may end up with the same calories. It is now up to us to compare their overall nutritional value and choose what is best for us.