Confused about how to read food labels? Wondering whether or not a product fits with a whole foods plant-based diet? Take a look at this comprehensive guide to label reading, and arm yourself with some nutritional know-how for your next grocery trip!
If you're new to healthy plant-based eating, you may be having a difficult time trying to figure out which products can and can't go in your grocery cart. Nutrition labels and ingredients lists can be confusing, especially if you don't really know what you're looking for. Of course, the bulk of the items you'll be buying on a whole food plant-based diet (fruits, vegetables, dry whole grains and legumes) won't require you to worry about ingredients lists and labels at all. But for some items, like whole grain breads, plant-based milks, or condiments and sauces, you'll need to be armed with a little label-reading knowledge. This will help ensure that you are making informed decisions about what to buy, and what to put back on the shelf.
The first rule you should follow?
Don't Believe Company Claims
The front of a package may boast that something is 'low in fat' or contains '25% less sodium' than another product. But these claims don't really mean anything- it's the ingredient list and the nutrition label that counts. A packet of potato chips containing 25% less sodium than the leading brand is still going to be very high in sodium. Similarly, many 'low fat' products are often insignificantly lower in fat than full-fat versions, and may have a host of other unwanted ingredients added to them to replace the fat that has been removed. So what's the best thing to do?
Check the Ingredient List
If you're buying whole grain bread, pasta, almond milk, hot sauce, or breakfast cereal, check the ingredients list first. Fewer ingredients is generally preferable; for example, look for pasta that contains nothing but 100% whole grain wheat, or bread that is free from too many additives and preservatives. When selecting food items for a healthy plant-based diet, you'll want to put back anything containing animal products (meat derivatives, dairy, egg) and products that are made with added oils, including coconut, olive, soy, corn, sunflower, peanut, and others. (You can find out why in this article)
If it's grain-based products you're buying (bread, pasta or crackers) check that the product is in fact whole grain, meaning that it's made with whole wheat flour, whole ground wheat, sprouted grains, etc. If you don't see the word 'whole' or 'sprouted' in front of the grain or flour listed, there's a good chance that it's refined. White or refined flours can be listed a number of different ways, including as wheat flour, enriched wheat flour, and unbleached flour. If any of these are listed as the main ingredient, this is not a whole grain product, and you should look for a whole grain alternative.
The final step when reading an ingredient list is to make sure that sugar doesn't feature too prominently. There are more than 50 different names for added sugar, including evaporated cane juice, fruit concentrate, barley malt and corn syrup. While very small amounts of added sweeteners may be okay, it shouldn't be a main ingredient in any cereal, bread or plant-based milks you buy. You also need to be aware that some products contain multiple types of sugars. If a product contains cane syrup, glucose syrup, and brown sugar, each individual ingredient may be quite far down the list. However, when you add all 3 of them up, they're contributing a much larger load of sugar than the the order of ingredients would suggest.
There has recently been a push to have the amount of added sugars listed on food labels - separately from naturally occurring sugars - to help make things clearer. But as this has yet to become a reality, the best and only thing you can do is be an avid label inspector!
If everything is okay on the ingredients list, what's next on the agenda?
Checking the Sodium Content
Added salt is present in most packaged foods, often at surprisingly high levels. As a general rule, you should aim to get less than 1500mg of sodium per day on a whole foods plant-based diet (find out why here). For this reason, calculating sodium levels based on the 'percentage of daily intake' listed on a package is not very helpful, as the recommended daily allowance according to food label standards is 2300mg. Looking at the sodium content of a 'recommended serving size' can be equally as unhelpful, since you may eat 2 or 3 times the serving size in a single sitting.
Dietitian Jeff Novick has a great rule for working out whether or not a product contains an acceptable amount of sodium. Take a look at the number of calories listed in a serving, then take a look at the amount of sodium (mg) listed. If the amount of sodium is higher than the amount of calories, put it back.
For example, here's a product that fits the rule:
And one that doesn't:
This rule can also be applied to condiments, but there's a little more leeway here. Condiments can contain a 1:4 ratio of calories to sodium, meaning that if a serving has 10 calories, up to 40mg of sodium is acceptable. You should, however, still opt for low-sodium condiments when possible. Those with heart disease, hypertension, or kidney problems should exercise additional caution when it comes to added salt in foods.
(For those living in Australia, figuring out the sodium ratio requires an additional step. You first have to convert the amount of kilojoules into calories. Do this by dividing the number of kilojoules (kJ) in a serving by 4.2, then compare the resulting number with the amount of sodium, as above.)
Now that sugar and salt are ticked off the list, what's left?
Check the Percentage of Calories From Fat
This is the final requirement, and it's one that often confuses people. Hopefully I can help make things a little clearer for you!
Generally speaking, individual items that fit within a whole food plant-based diet should provide no more than 20% of their calories as fat. Some exceptions to this rule can be made for items used in very small quantities, such as the tahini you buy to make hummus, or a block of silken tofu that's being used for a salad dressing. But for items eaten in larger volumes, the 20% rule should apply. (The diet as a whole should be comprised of an average 10-15% of calories from fat, but items closer to 20% can be balanced out with the inclusion of plenty of other lower-fat items such as fruits, vegetables, and legumes.)
Figuring out the percentage of calories from fat requires a little math work, but it's pretty simple once you get the hang of it. To demonstrate this rule, we'll compare two examples.
Calories: 160 | Calories from Fat: 60
- The easiest way to figure out the percentage of calories from fat is to first look at the number of calories in a serve, which is 160. To check whether or not this product meets the rule, you need to figure out what 20% of 160 is. One quick way to do this is to divide the number of calories by 10, then double it, which gives us 32. You now know that in order for this product to fit the 20% rule, the number of calories from fat needs to be 32 or less. As we can see, this product contains almost double that amount (60), so it doesn't fit the rule.
Calories: 220 | Calories from Fat: 30
- For this product to meet the guideline, a serving should contain no more than 44 calories from fat (since 20% of 220 is 44). This product clocks in well under that with 30 calories from fat, so it meets our guideline.
In Australia and New Zealand, 'calories from fat' are not listed on labels, which makes this task a little more difficult. The best way to figure out which products are suitable is to look for ones containing no more than 2 grams of fat per 420 kilojoules.
Here's an example of a product that fits the bill:
Total Fat: 2.8g (should be < 4g to meet the guideline)
And one that doesn't:
Total Fat: 4.2g (should be < 3g to meet the guideline)
US Label Comparison
To see these rules in action, take a look at the two nutrition label examples below. Table 1 shows the nutritional information for a product that fits all the aforementioned guidelines; table 2 shows nutritional information for a product that does not.
Serving Size: 68g | Servings Per Container: 10
Calories 160 | Calories From Fat 10
Total Fat 0.5g | Saturated Fat 0g | Trans Fat 0g
Total Carbohydrate 14g | Dietary Fiber 13g | Sugars 0g
Ingredients: Whole Ground Wheat, Water, Sprouted Barley, Sprouted Spelt, Fresh Yeast, Sea Salt.
Serving Size: 45g | Servings Per Container: 2
Calories 220 | Calories From Fat 60
Total Fat 7g | Saturated Fat 2g | Trans Fat 0g
Total Carbohydrate 25g | Dietary Fiber 2g | Sugars 10g
Ingredients: Popped corn, Sunflower Oil, Cane Sugar, Natural Flavouring (milk), Salt, Lactose (milk), Dextrose, Glucose Syrup, Guar Gum, Caramelised Sugar.
AU / NZ Label Comparison
Nutrition labels are laid out a little differently down under, which is why we're providing a separate comparison for readers in Australia and New Zealand. Table 1 shows the nutritional information for a product that fits all the aforementioned guidelines; table 2 shows nutritional information for a product that does not.
Servings Per Pack: 6 | Serving Size: 37.5g
Energy: 452 kJ
Fat, Total: 0.5g
- Saturated: 0.1g | Trans: 0.0g | Polyunsaturated: 0.3g | Monounsaturated: 0.1g
Carbohydrates, Total: 20.2g
- Sugars: 0.6g
Dietary Fibre, Total: 2.4g
Ingredients: Wholemeal Wheat Flour, Water, Yeast, Iodized Salt.
To convert kilojoules (kJ) to calories, divide the number by 4.2
Servings Per Pack: 6 | Serving Size: 90g
Energy: 1260 kJ
Fat, Total: 7.8g
- Saturated: 2.2g | Trans: 0.4g | Polyunsaturated: 2.6g | Monounsaturated: 2.8g
Carbohydrates, Total: 53g
- Sugars: 20g
Dietary Fibre, Total: 2g
Ingredients: Wheat Flour, Blueberries, Sugar, Canola Oil, Lemon Juice, Milk Solids, Mineral Salt, Glucose Syrup, Salt, Flavour, Iodised Salt, Sucrose, Glucose, Preservative.
To convert kilojoules (kJ) to calories, divide the number by 4.2
If this feels like a lot to remember- don't worry! UC Davis have put together a very handy inforgraphic, which you can download, print out, and carry with you when you go shopping. After a few grocery trips, you'll quickly figure out which products do and don't meet these guidelines, and will be able to navigate the aisles with greater speed and ease.
If you'd like more information on reading food labels, be sure to check out this great post from Jeff Novick, RD.
Article photo courtesy of The USDA via Flickr.