Blogs     Women's Health    

Label Reading Made Easy

Sticking to a few simple rules will help us stay healthy

Dr. Padma Garvey/Plant-Based Doctor Mom

Label Reading Made Easy

Last week I was at the airport waiting for a flight.  I decided to buy some snacks and get some lunch.  Now let’s all agree that avoiding processed foods is ideal.  But sometimes that is just not possible.  Let’s also agree that sodium content, cholesterol content, and sugar content are all important.  Hopefully, everyone knows that the worst fat of all, trans fat, has been almost eliminated from most foods. Most of us know that the candy bars, gummy bears, nacho chips, and doughnuts are not good options.  The problem is trying to figure out which supposedly "healthy snacks" are actually good for us.  Keeping things simple can be especially useful when you are in a rush or having to make a choice between two less than ideal options.  Often, we have to decipher misleading claims on the front of the package, only to be faced with the data dump of the standard nutrition label.  Interestingly, the standard nutrition label does not tell you what percentage of the calories come from fat.  You have to do some math to get this information.  Processed food makers are hoping you won't do the math.

Based on studies of the Mediterranean diet, the healthiest people in the world consume a low-fat diet.  On the nutrition label,  the total calories per serving are in the largest font up top.  The next line is usually TOTAL FAT in grams (not calories which would be helpful).    Across from this is usually how much fat this food provides based on USDA's recommended daily allowances.  This is where processed food companies get us.  This number is NOT the percentage of fat calories per serving in the food you are about to eat.  It is a meaningless number unless you are keeping track of all the grams of fat you are eating all day.

One tablespoon of oil has 120 calories and 100% of the calories are from fat. Regular ranch dressing has 93% of its calories from fat whereas fat-free ranch dressing has 0% fat calories. Fat-free ranch dressing does have a lot of sugar in it, and ideally you should eat your salad with no dressing at all or with some lemon juice or vinegar.  But if you are not there yet, then picking the lower fat alternative is the better choice.  Store bought hummus can have up to 50% of calories from fat depending on the brand because of the tahini and olive oil added.  Of course, you can control how much tahini and olive oil you add if you make hummus at home.  But the hummus is a better option than the regular ranch dressing.  Also the hummus has fiber whereas the ranch dressing does not. Serving sizes plays a factor here too.  One tablespoon of oil has just as many calories as 1 and 1/2 tablespoons of ranch dressing, 1/2 cup of guacamole or four tablespoons of hummus.  So when you go plant-based you can eat more volume and still get less fat.

In order to calculate the percentage of calories from fat, take the grams of fat and multiple by 9.  This gives you the calories from fat in the food.  Take this number and divide by the total calories per serving and multiply by 100.   This gives you the percentage of calories from fat.  When you do this you start to see how unhealthy certain foods are despite the labelling. 

Baked potato chips have about 7% calories from fat whereas regular potato chips are 60% fat. If you are going to have potato chips then picking the baked option gives you the satisfaction of the chip without so much fat.   Guacamole is 80% fat as opposed to mayonnaise which is 95% fat.   The hummus and the guacamole are loaded with fiber unlike the mayonnaise. Also the serving sizes of the hummus and guacamole are much bigger than the mayonnaise.  This is why sticking to plant-based options, even those with fat, has advantages over options with meat and dairy.  So try hummus or guacamole as a sandwich spread.

Back at the airport, I ultimately settled on buying a container of carrot sticks and celery sticks that came with ranch dressing.  I didn’t eat the ranch dressing.  Instead I bought another container of hummus and pretzels and dipped my veggies into the hummus.   I got a container of coconut water to drink.  I had my snack but needed to get something for lunch later.  I went to the Subway sandwich shop and ordered a 6 inch whole wheat sub with veggies, guacamole, and vinegar and a bag of baked potato chips for the plane ride.

Other articles by Padma Garvey