The holidays are here, and as we all know, it’s easy to pack on extra weight with all the sweet treats and rich meals we indulge in this time of year. One way to eat healthier and avoid extra calories any time of year is to read nutrition labels. All packaged food comes with a nutrition fact label that tells us exactly what we’re about to eat, so sticking to a healthy diet should be easy, right?
Unfortunately, it’s not that simple.
For starters, these labels typically offer information on the nutritional value of a specific serving size—usually for one serving—which can lead to confusion. For example, the label may indicate a product contains 75% of your recommended daily sugar intake, leaving you feeling fine about eating the whole thing. But a single container of that food may contain four servings, meaning the whole product contains 300%—that’s three times the amount—of your recommended daily sugar allowance.
Even after you get past these often misleading percentages and serving sizes, there are certain ingredients you should watch for on the labels. According to the FDA, Americans generally consume too much sugar, saturated fat, and sodium. Limiting your intake of these nutrients may decrease your risks of developing certain diseases or conditions, like heart disease, obesity, elevated blood pressure, and more.
This article will guide you on what to look for when it comes to nutrition labels.
When it comes to sugar intake, there are two things to look for on nutrition labels. “Total Sugars” includes all the sugar that’s in the food, including the natural sugars present in healthy foods like fruits and dairy products, as well as sugars that are added to the product. “Added Sugars,” on the other hand, refers only to how much sugar was supplemented to the food during processing. These added sugars go by a plethora of names—common ones include high-fructose corn syrup, fructose, glucose, maltose, sucrose, and dextrose—and should be avoided wherever possible.
Unfortunately, added sugars are present in a lot of foods, including sodas and fruit juices, processed foods, flavored yogurts, cereals, condiments, bread, sauces, soups, and more. As a result, many of us are eating way too much of it. According to the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, added sugars account for almost 270 calories, or 13% of calories per day in the US population; the guidelines currently recommend limiting added sugars to less than 10% of calories per day.
“When added sugars in foods and beverages exceed 10% of calories, a healthy eating pattern may be difficult to achieve,” wrote the authors of the guideline. And, this past summer, a committee of doctors, registered dietitians, and public health experts that formulated the guidelines advised a further reduction in the amount of added sugar consumed by children and adults to 6% of total daily calories. According to the dietary guidelines official website, the USDA and Health and Human Services are working on the next edition, which they expect to release at the end of the year.
Evidence of the effect of added sugars on health outcomes is still evolving, but the recommendations are consistent with research that indicates that too much sugar can have a negative impact on health, the guideline authors wrote.
“Strong evidence from mostly prospective cohort studies but also randomized controlled trials has shown that eating patterns that include lower intake of sources of added sugars are associated with reduced risk of [cardiovascular disease] in adults, and moderate evidence indicates that these eating patterns are associated with reduced risk of obesity, type 2 diabetes, and some types of cancer in adults,” they wrote.
One study has raised alarm bells in its findings about soda—one of the top sources of added sugar for Americans. The study, published in JAMA Internal Medicine in 2019, looked at the association between soda consumption and total mortality. Using a cohort of more than 450,000 participants across 10 European countries, the researchers analyzed the soda intake of subjects and tracked mortality rates over 15 years.
They found higher rates of all-cause mortality in those who consumed two or more glasses of soda a day, compared with those who mostly don’t drink soda. While the study did not indicate any links between soda consumption and cancer, it did find that soda drinkers had a higher risk of circulatory, digestive, and neurodegenerative diseases. In fact, the study’s findings suggested that people who tend to get 17%-21% of their calories from added sugar may have a 38% higher risk of dying from cardiovascular disease.
Other studies, however, have produced different findings. For example, a review on the health impacts of consuming sugar, published in the journal Nutrients, concluded that the idea that sugar alone is responsible for long-term health harm is not supported by the highest quality evidence. The authors, however, noted that there are “well-established risk factors for obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease” and they do not recommend excessive consumption of added sugars.
This concurs with the FDA’s advice: consuming too much added sugar makes it tricky to meet nutritional needs while staying within the recommended calorie limit. So, make sure you always read the ingredients of a product and check the Added Sugars section on the label.
Trans fats, also known as partially hydrogenated oils, are produced through an industrial process that adds hydrogen to vegetable oil. This gives the oil the ability to stay solid at room temperature, which means you can produce foods that have a longer shelf life.
In 2015, the FDA ruled that trans fats are unsafe to eat and banned them from being used in food production in the United States. With the aim of lowering rates of heart attacks and deaths, the agency gave food-producers a deadline of 3 years to eliminate them from the food supply. The FDA subsequently extended that deadline to January 1, 2021. But until that process is complete, there are still plenty of foods in the market that contain trans fats, including margarine, certain baked goods, some fried foods, and others. And some foods naturally contain trans fats, like certain meat and dairy products, although it’s unclear whether naturally occurring trans fats are harmful.
Research has shown that eating foods with high levels of trans fats increases levels of LDL cholesterol—known as the “bad cholesterol”—in the bloodstream and reduces levels of beneficial HDL cholesterol. According to Harvard Health Publishing, for every 2% of calories of trans fats consumed daily, your risk of heart attack can increase by up to 23%. Trans fats also cause inflammation, which has been linked to increased risks of heart disease, stroke, and other chronic illnesses. Beyond that, consumption of trans fats is associated with increased insulin resistance, which can lead to the development of diabetes, according to this research.
Contrary to popular belief, sodium is not salt. Salt is made up of sodium and chloride, but it’s the consumption of high levels of sodium that causes concern over public health. Reducing sodium consumption by 30% by 2025 is one of the WHO’s nine priorities in its Global Action Plan for the Reduction of Non-communicable Diseases 2013‐2020.
According to a review of salt and health outcomes published last year in the Journal of Clinical Hypertension, a consistent body of evidence indicates that high sodium intake can lead to elevated blood pressure—and there’s a well-documented link between high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease with outcomes like stroke and heart attack. But the researchers noted that the data regarding links between sodium and mortality risk are inconsistent.
While we can’t live without salt, most Americans are more likely to consume too much salt than too little, which makes it harder for the kidneys to properly remove fluid, leading to fluid buildup in the body that can lead to hypertension over time.
What to look for
In addition to checking labels for unhealthy ingredients, you should also be looking for beneficial nutrients. According to the FDA, we should all be getting more fiber, vitamin D, calcium, iron, and potassium. Getting a good amount of fiber can help increase the frequency of bowel movements, lower blood glucose and cholesterol levels, and reduce calorie intake. Vitamin D, calcium, iron, and potassium all help to reduce the risk of developing osteoporosis, anemia, and high blood pressure.
So remember: To ensure you are following the healthiest dietary patterns, check the label. And in the meantime, enjoy the treats you do indulge in this holiday season—in moderation.