When you’re reading a nutrition label what are you looking for?
- Salt (sodium)
- Or maybe a collection of some of these words:
- Cage free
- Good source of
- Grass fed
- Heart healthy
- Whole grains
If you’re like me, when you read a food label you’re probably looking for some of those words and the numbers or percentages that sit next to them.
But what you really want to know is if this food is good for you or not? Is this food going to make me fat? Is this food going to help me build lean muscle? Is this food going to improve my performance (in the gym people, geez)?
Maybe you don’t even really care and you’re just looking to look – Ever bought a pizza and a diet coke?
Most nutrition labels don’t answer these directions directly but there are things you can look for to help you to get answers to those questions. Today’s article is all about nutrition labels and how, why, and when to read them.
We’ll also also talk a bit about the psychology of nutrition labels and how they affect your physiology. Believe it or not what you read on a nutrition label can actually hormones in your body that influence appetite and hunger… SAY WHA!!!!
The Psychology and Physiology of Nutrition Labels
A few weeks ago my buddy Zach sent me an article featured on NPR titled Mind Over Milkshake: How Your Thoughts Fool Your Stomach.
The article covers a research experiment conducted by Alia Crum, a clinical psychologist who does research out of the Columbia Business School in New York.
Alia wanted to see if a label was just a label or if there is more to it then that. What she discovered is extremely fascinating and may jut help you create more awareness and make better choices on your next trip to the grocery store.
“Labels are not just labels; they evoke a set of beliefs.” –Alia Crumb, Clinical Psychologist
To sum up the experiment briefly, Alia wanted to know to know whether what you read on a nutritional label could physically change you or not. She wanted to know when you read calories, fat, carbohydrates, healthy, and other words like this on a nutritional label if they affect your bodies physiology.
I’m sure you’re familiar with a placebo effect and how a sugar pill can physically change your body if you really believe that it has the ability to.
In her experiment Alia made two different batches of a French vanilla shake, each with their own label.
The first shake was a low-calorie beverage called “Sensishake,” with a label that read zero percent fat, zero added sugar, and 140 calories.
The second shake was called “Indulgence,” with a label that included added sugar, high fat, and 620 calories.
However, the “Sensishake” and the “Indulgence” shake actually were the same drink with 300 calories.
Before drinking each shake the hormone gherlin was measured in each participant of the study. We covered gherlin, other hormones, and how they can influence your appetite in this post but as a refresher – Gherlin is often considered the hunger hormone. It’s made primarily in the stomach and communicates with the brain to stimulate hunger. If fat loss is your primary goal you want less ghrelin.
What Alia found was that if you believed you were drinking the high sugar, high fat, and high calorie “Indulgent shake” your bodies physiology acted in a way that would suggest you actually drank a higher calorie shake – Your ghrelin levels dropped. 3 times more than when the same participants in the study consumed the no fat, no added sugar, low-calorie “Sensishake.”
So what’s the point of this?
Your beliefs matter. The way you THINK about food matters. In fact, your beliefs and the way you think matter beyond just food – They matter in everything that you do.
How Are Nutrition Labels Calculated?
Warning: Code red science alert! If you want to read about the specific process visit this link.
Most food companies test foods in-house, at a food lab, or don’t test at all and estimate using current information nutrition information available to them.
When companies test food in-house or at a food lab they use samples of their product and burn them in a bomb calorimeter. A food or meal is weighed, blended, freeze-dried, grinded into a powder, and then finally headed until it turns into ash.
The heated food is used to raise the temperature of water by 1 degree celsius. The calorimeter displays the amount of energy that it takes to do this, which ends up being the caloric value.
This is not an exact science as the body uses food a little different. It also processes fibers and other nutrients differently which can affect the exact calculations. So while not perfect, it does give you a rough idea about the composition of a food.
Your body also has the ability to speed up and slow down the rate at which it uses energy based on how much you’re currently eating, the availability of food, exercise, and your sleeping habits.
The Two Faces of Nutrition Labels
1. The label on the front or the one for show is to get you to buy: This usually includes enticing colors, cartoon characters, pictures of people enjoying the food, and industry buzz words like:
- Good source of
- Free range
- Heart healthy
- No added sugar, fat, etc…
Some of these terms are governed by law like the ingredients and nutrition info.
But you’ll remember from this post that most of these words are fuzzy at best. When we read them we actually don’t know what they mean.
They’re also a little misleading. You can buy a natural chicken breast but also a natural granola bar with high fructose corn syrup. You can buy organic broccoli but also organic pop tarts.
2. The one on the back that helps to hold companies accountable and informs you about things like:
- Best before dates or sell by dates
- Nutrition info
- Serving sizes
- Where it’s from
Basically the front label is designed to get you to pick it up, hold it, maybe even smell it and the back label is designed to tell you what’s inside.
In a weird way it’s sort of like attraction. You see a good-looking guy or woman. You stare at them for a second, you probably move in closer for a better look, probably try to touch their arm or brush up against them, you probably even get a whiff of their scent.
You then ask them on a date so you can get to know them. This is where the back label comes in. You start getting the information you need in order to decide whether you’re a good match for each other or not.
Unfortunately, just like when trying to pick a partner we can often get this wrong – Easily influenced by looks, hearing what we want to hear, or a big house and fancy car.
Major Issues With Nutrition Labels
The Biggest Issue With Nutrition Labels Is That They Actually Don’t Tell You What You Want To Know.
Knowing the amount of calories, protein, carbs, fat, and vitamins is super informative but for most people knowing those things isn’t very helpful.
You most likely just want to know:
- Is this food going to make me fat
- Is this food going to give me energy
- Is this food going to help me build muscle
- Is this food going to be good for me
- Is this food going to be ok for my blood pressure, cholesterol, or diabetes.
- Should I eat this? Someone just tell me yes or no 🙂
The Information On Labels Is Useful But They Don’t Tell YOU What YOU Really Need
No mystery here but each of us is unique and our bodies are very complex. My nutritional needs are going to be very different from yours. And yours are going to be very different from those of your kids.
Lets take a look at a nutrition label I came across the other day.
- Serving size: 148 grams
- Calories: 84
- Fat: 0 grams
- Protein: 0 grams
- Carbohydrate: 21 grams
- Sugar: 15 grams
What are you first thoughts when you see this? That’s a lot of sugar? Whoa, a lot of carbs man? Where’s the protein? Hey, it’s fat free – I dig it!
This label belongs to a container of blueberries, a healthy food and something that is recommended on the real food chart.
Blueberries would be a better choice than a class of orange juice, a bagel, or two slices of bread but if you ate nothing but blueberries all day it would be difficult to drop body fat. Those sugars and carbohydrates would really slow down your progress.
The Terms Don’t Really Mean Anything
I’m serious, most of what you read on them is just to get you to buy the product. Here’s a few examples that my friends over at PN give us.
- This food is part of a healthy breakfast
- This food is part of a balanced diet
- This food has no artificial ingredients
- A good source of vitamins and minerals (I’ve seen this on Pop Tarts for crying out loud).
There are even some vegetable based food products out there that let you know they’re cholesterol free… These products never had any cholesterol in the first place.
There are other terms like organic, natural, and free-range that are a little more reliable. You can read about the specifics of those terms here. But just as a reminder there are “organic” cookies, and “natural,” baked goods all over the place. These terms don’t make any of these products good for you.
They’re Not Always Accurate
It’s been shown that nutritional information at restaurants can be off as much as 300 calories.
Your body also doesn’t get as much energy from some foods as it does from others. For example, resistant starches and high fiber foods.
There are other factors that affect the vitamin, mineral, and caloric load of food as well.
- The diet fed to the animal (grass-fed versus grain-fed)
- Cooking time and temperature
- How the food is stored
- In season our out of season
- The quality of soil a food was grown in
So while nutrition labels give you an estimate they’re not perfect by any means.
Lastly, The Standards Given To You Are Pretty Confusing
You’ve probably noticed terms such as recommended daily allowance and daily value (%dv).
It’s a great ideas to have these on nutrition labels but the problem is that these recommendations are too general. A 21-year-old, 5 foot, 100 pound woman is going to have very different nutritional requirements than a 65-year-old, 6 foot 3, 200 pound man.
%DV: Is the percentage total amount each day that you “should” be consuming. Percentages are based on a 2,000 calorie diet. The problem is not all of us live off of a 2,000 calorie diet.
If you’re a smaller woman you may only need 1,500 calories. If you’re a very active male you may need 4,000 calories per day. Gender, body type, activity levels, blood work, muscle mass, and other factors are going to come into play here.
Recommended daily allowance (RDA): This is the estimated amount of a nutrient or calories needed per day for good health as determined by the Food and Nutrition Board of National Research Council.
The problem with this is that it often is confused with the ingredients found in food. So when a label says that a product contains 20% of Iron it is often confused with being made of 20% of iron.
See how confusing this can be 🙂
The Limitless365 Philosophy On Food Labels
Food labels can be confusing and I’d like to simplify the process for you as much as possible. So the next time you’re at the grocery store and considering whether to buy a given food I’d like you to think about these things.
1. If A Food Has A Label Don’t Buy It
Hear me out. If food has a label it most likely was processed, has some ingredients you can’t pronounce, and was designed to get you to buy with
no little regard for your health.
So if I don’t buy things with a label what the heck do I buy?
You buy real food!
- Proteins: Beef, Salmon, Chicken, etc…
- Vegetables: Broccoli, Bok Choy, Spinach, Kale
- Fruit: Apples, Raspberries, Blackberries
- Nuts & Seeds (healthy fats): Almonds, Macadamia, Cashews, etc..
- Healthy Fats: Olives, Olive Oil, and Coconut oil (test, it has a label but there’s one ingredient)
I double dog dare you to go 30 days with buying and eating one ingredient food only. I guarantee you if you do this your body, mind, and spirit will dramatically change.
2. If You Do Buy Food With A Label Focus On This
Prioritize the ingredient list.
Underneath the nutrition stats on the back of a food label there will be a list of ingredients.
I have a rule, if there are more than 3 ingredients then I put that food away and it there is something I can’t pronounce I throw up my arms and tell everyone else in the store not to buy it either 🙂 – I kid…
In all seriousness, food labels put the primary ingredients at the beginning of this list, so if you notice things like yellow #5, high fructose corn syrup, sugar, gluten, or weird things you cannot pronounce early on this list – put it back.
For example, this is a can of peanuts (not paleo). The second ingredient is sugar and the third is corn syrup.
What the heck man! I just want some peanuts. Put this bad boy away. Make sure that the first ingredient is what you want.
3. Establish Your Personal Nutrition Label Values
One of my favorite articles on the web is this one about values by Mark Manson. I’m using the ideas in it to create nutrition label values.
When you go grocery shopping go into it with an established set of values for yourself and family. For instance you may decide that you will NOT be buying foods with the following:
- High fructose corn syrup
- Added sugar (you’d be surprised what sugar is added to)
- More than 3 ingredients on the label
- Ingredients you can’t pronounce
If you notice these things on the label it goes back on the shelf. What are your nutrition label values (NLV’s)?
4. Servings Per Container For The Win
If there is one thing I’d like for you to notice on a nutrition label it would be the serving size. You’ll usually find this on the back of a product right underneath where it says Nutrition Facts.
It’s easy to buy a product and go right to the calories, fat, carbs, and sugar contain. But this should be the first thing that you look for.
You read the label and see that it has 150 calories, 3 grams of fat, and 25 grams of carbohydrate. You think to yourself, “this isn’t so bad,” and decide to buy it and then proceed to gobble it up.
Little did you know the nutrition information was based on 2 servings per container.
Now you’ve taken in 300 calories, 6 grams of fat, and 50 grams of carbohydrates!
Beverages are notorious for this and so are baked goods. I’ve seen nutrition facts given if you eat half a cookie…. WTF! Who eats half a cookie?
5. Don’t Fall For The Buzz Words
If you’re following a gluten-free diet than you’re most likely looking for labels that say gluten-free on them. However, this doesn’t make them good for you. Oreo’s are gluten-free for Pete’s sake.
No sugar added doesn’t mean that there isn’t sugar. It can still be food that includes a ton of sugar.
- A good source of…
- Heart healthy
- Part of a…
- Fortified with…
None of these terms really real mean anything at all. You’ll usually see them on the front label and remember the front is geared to get you to buy.
For example, I’m sure you’ve seen some foods that are fortified with b-vitamins (or other vitamins and minerals). These b-vitamins that are added to foods can come from coal-tar.
Anything Else I Should Know Before Heading To The Store?
Food labeling for the most part is designed in two ways.
1. To override the decision-making process and to get you to buy. By creating labels that appeal to your kids (crying baby I want that labeling) and using buzz words that make a product sound good for you, delicious, or something else.
Also, terms like small, medium, large, and vent (sorry Starbucks) don’t mean anything. Just like how the clothing industry has created vanity sizing (a size 16 now may be a 12) food companies and restaurants have done the same.
Serving sizes keep getting bigger but the names stay the same. For example, Burger Kings small soda was once 12 ounces but now it’s 20 ounces, Hmmmmm…..
Our brains process the word small and think that this is great, we’re doing the right thing but in the real world a small is actually far to big for most of us and our fitness goals.
2. To Inform. I don’t want to beat food labels down because they actually are there to inform you as well. The problem is most of us have no clue what they mean, what to look for, and they don’t answer the question we really want to know like will this make me fat, raise my cholesterol, help me get strong and fit – They’re more often overwhelming and confusing.
If you want to start eating healthier RIGHT NOW – scrap foods with a nutrition label and opt for eating more real food without one.
Food companies manufacture food so that it hits a “bliss point.” The bliss point of food is where it creates the greatest amount of “crave.” Yup, food companies actually hire people to scientifically manufacture foods so that you crave them. They want to know exactly how much extra sugar they should add to Lemonade to hide the acidity and make you want more.
They alter sugar, salt, and fat so that it provides a specific mouth feel, hits your taste buds in a specific way, and creates “flavor bursts.”
All I have to say here is Hot Cheetos and Taki’s. Watch and enjoy!
“(Hot Cheetos)…is one of the most marvelously constructed foods on the planet, in terms of pure pleasure.” He ticked off a dozen attributes of the Cheetos that make the brain say more. But the one he focused on most was the puff’s uncanny ability to melt in the mouth. “It’s called vanishing caloric density,” Witherly said. “If something melts down quickly, your brain thinks that there’s no calories in it . . . you can just keep eating it forever.” –Nextnature.net
I don’t know anyone that wants to eat badly. Everyone wants to be healthy and eat healthy – Unfortunately our environment makes it difficult, confusing, and overwhelming to do so.
Plus, as this article from Jeremy Dean points out – We have a very dysfunctional relationship with food.
- We’re dissatisfied with what we eat
- We don’t know when we’re full
- We’re confused about what is and what isn’t good for us (fat bad? What about eggs? Can I drink soy?)
- We eat mindlessly
- We’re emotional eaters
If you’ve obsessed over reading food labels in attempts to eat healthier you can save yourself a lot of time, headache, and confusion by doing the following:
- Change your environment and do a kitchen makeover (do this at work and anywhere else you spend a considerable amount of time)
- Hit the grocery store and buy more real food and forget about stuff with a label
- Practice mindful eating by using smaller plates, Tupperware, and by slowing down and taking 20 to 30 minutes to finish a meal
Question of the day: What is the first thing you look at when you read a nutrition label? Does it even matter to you after you read it? Post to the comments below.
P.S: Want to learn more about the food industry, labeling practices, but get the information delivered in an easy to understand manor? Check out Salt, Sugar, Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us by Michael Moss and Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health by Marion Nestle
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