Substance Over Style: Analyzing Food Labels, 7 Things to Consider


By: Darrell W. Butler
ACE, NFPT, ISCA Certified Personal Trainer
As my recent, excruciatingly painful first date with a gorgeous fitness model whose idea of “deep conversation” was a four-hour discussion on custom doggie sweaters and which of her designer handbags best matched each one demonstrated, my mother was right: it’s not always what’s on the outside that counts.

The same could also be said about the fancy packaging and flashy ads for many of the popular foods that we load into our grocery carts each week. Sure they’re fun to look at with their bold promises and flashy logos, but if we really took the proper time to get to know what was on the inside, we might just find that they often fail to bring anything of substance or value to the table.

Unfortunately human beings don’t come equipped with a list of their contents (although that would make things so much easier wouldn’t it? “Warning: may be full of hot air…”) however most of our foods do.  Still, many of us don’t know how to properly analyze that information to know if we’re actually making good choices.

With that said, here are the Top 7 main things to consider when analyzing your food labels so that you can avoid being duped the next time that you visit the grocery store.

1. Serving Size – This is usually the first thing listed on the top of the label and it contains two key pieces of information. The first piece of information is the portion that equals the serving size represented on the label, and the second is how many of these servings are actually contained within the package.

It’s crucial that you pay very close attention to these to figures, because if you exceed the serving size indicated, you’ll need to do some math in order to figure out exactly how much of each ingredient you’ve ingested.

For example, if you were analyzing the nutritional info for chicken soup and planned to eat the entire can, but the serving size represented was for only one-third of the contents, you’d need to multiply everything by 3 to reveal the accurate figures. Many companies are extremely creative with their serving sizes in order to paint their product in the best light, so you may need to either brush up on your multiplication skills or utilize that calculator function on your cell phone to figure things out.

Now, taking the realistic serving size into account, does your product still make the grade? If not, you may not want to make this item a staple of your diet and save it for one of your occasional nutritional “cheat meals.”

2. Fats – The total amount of fat will typically be listed near the top of the label as well and this is another key statistic. Generally speaking, you should aim not to have more than 30% of your total calories (or more than 3 grams for every 100 calories) come from fat.

You’ll also want to aim for foods that contain zero trans-fats and are lower in saturated fats. Of course, fats are not all created equally so your body actually does require some essential fats to function properly. If you need a refresher on differentiating between the various types of fat, reread the cholesterol section of my post Post BBQ Tune Up article for more information.

3. Total Carbohydrates and Sugar – Carbohydrates are also not all created equally. Complex carbohydrates (the starchy kind) tend to break down slower and have less of an immediate impact on your blood sugar and energy levels than simple carbohydrates, which are mostly comprised of sugar.

While some people fear carbohydrates like the plague, your body actually requires them for energy, however as you’ve probably guessed from the previous statement, you’ll want to consume mostly complex carbohydrates. For this reason, most nutritional labels have a secondary category under carbohydrates where they list the amount of sugars as well. In general, you’ll want to aim for less than 20 grams of sugar per serving.

For weight loss, aim to have no more than 40% of your total calories for the day come from carbohydrates, regardless of the type.

4. Sodium – If your diet relies heavily upon prepackaged meals, you’ll definitely want to pay very close attention to this category as most are absolutely loaded with sodium and preservatives. While limited amounts of sodium are also required for the body to function properly, you’ll generally want to aim for less than 2,400 milligrams per day.

Most frozen foods (yes, even those “healthy” ones in the pretty packages that support various weight loss programs), soups and deli meats often contain extreme amounts of sodium. As nerdy as it may look, this is one time where you may want to consider breaking out that aforementioned calculator!

Even if the label indicates that it’s the “low sodium” version of the product, that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s healthy – that simply means that it’s healthier than the original version. You’ll still need to do your homework and analyze the label before making your selection.

Excess amounts of sodium can wreak havoc on your heart and your general well-being, so choose wisely. If you do occasionally splurge, be sure to drink plenty of water to help offset some of the negative effects.

5. Fiber – As I’m sure you’ve already heard, fiber is great for you. Among its many benefits is its ability to help lower cholesterol and suppress hunger. As the women dancing around in the commercials with their Activia yogurt will surely tell you, it’s also great for aiding with digestion and keeping you “regular.” Generally speaking, the higher the fiber, the better – so long as you have access to a bathroom if you’re consuming extreme amounts!

6. Protein – While there are many differing opinions on exactly how much protein you should have, two things are certain. One is that if you’re the average American, you’re most likely not consuming enough, and the second certainty is that you will not develop any muscle tone without incorporating protein into your diet.

Obviously men and women have different nutritional requirements as do those with certain medical conditions, however generally speaking you’ll want to incorporate a quality protein into every meal. Not only do proteins help to develop lean muscle mass, they also break down slower for sustained energy throughout the day. For that reason, look for items that contain higher amounts as long as the fat and sodium content is still within a healthy range.

7. Total Number of Ingredients – At the bottom of most food labels you’ll see a list of the ingredients that your item contains. Generally speaking, the shorter the list, the healthier the item. For example, it’s highly unlikely that you’re going to see a long list of ingredients on a stalk of broccoli or a bag of baby carrots! Also make sure that sugar is not the first ingredient listed, since the main ingredients are always listed first.

Learning the truth about your favorite foods can often prove to be an extremely rude awakening. Learning that “fat free donuts” really don’t exist may prove to be just as traumatic as it was to learn the truth about the tooth fairy and the Easter Bunny. Unfortunately this is a necessary step that you’ll need to take in order to strengthen your relationship with the foods that you’re eating, and to learn how they truly affect your body.

About Author

Darrell W. Butler is the creator of the gut busting ®Fat Darrell Sandwich, and is also a certified personal trainer with the American Council on Exercise (ACE), The National Federation of Professional Trainers (NFPT) and a Performance Enhancement Coach for Parisi Speed School. He carries a diverse array of coaching and group instructor credentials including Insanity, Training for Warriors, ISCA kickboxing, TRX/Fitness Anywhere Group Suspension Training, IndoRow, Technogym Kinesis, TEAM Fitness, TEAM Weight Loss, TEAM Boot Camp and the Take it off Weight Loss Program. My Fitness Muse is the Fitness division of ®Fat Darrell’s LLC. Follow me on Instagram @Fatdarrellsllc

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