Packaged foods that look healthy are often misleading which is why learning how to read nutrition labels is a great skill, especially as you move to a whole food plant-based diet. Make your trip to the supermarket easier with these tips for assessing nutrition labels quickly.
The Full Story
A whole food plant-based diet means you’re going to be eating lots of fresh and beautiful produce from your grocery store and local markets. That said, there will be times when you’ll venture into other aisles to pick up the occasional whole food plant-based packaged food. And when this happens, you’ll want to learn how to read a nutrition label.
Now, we know what you’re thinking: do you really need to learn how to read a nutrition label? How hard can it be? Well, unfortunately, nutrition labels aren’t always as transparent as they could be! And if you’re new to whole food plant-based living, it’s definitely easy to be misled by what you read on the label.
But don’t fret - we’re here to help you learn how to read food labels so you can navigate nutrition claims claims and quickly assess whether something fits with your lifestyle or not.
How to read a nutrition label
1. Look for minimal ingredients and chemicals/preservatives
As you’re reading food labels, give the ingredients a quick look over first. Is the list a mile long? Are you unable to pronounce several of the words? These products are most definitely not whole food plant-based. Look for minimal ingredients and for ingredients that you recognize as real, whole food.
The American Heart Association recommends 2,300 mg of sodium a day (and they say 1,500 mg is even better). Some studies suggests we need as little as 125 mg a day. Either way, thanks to processed foods and frequent restaurant meals, the average American is getting way too much at closer to 3,400 mg of sodium daily.
So how can you keep your sodium count down? You can learn how to read a nutrition label. A quick and easy trick for understanding if something is high in sodium or not: ideally the sodium mg should be equal to or less than the number of calories per serving size.
So if something has 100 calories per serving, you want to see 100 mg or less of sodium.
Keep in mind, it doesn’t always have to be exact. If your on a salt-free diet, then you may want to steer clear from most packaged foods in general unless they explicitly say “salt free.” If you’re goal is to get 1500-2300 mg of sodium per day keep that in mind as you go throughout your day.
Not only are packaged foods high in sat, they’re also often loaded with unhealthy fats and oils. A helpful list of ingredients to look out for (and avoid):
Butter, 0Milk, Lard, Cheese, Oils including coconut, palm, kernel, and yes, even olive oil. Trans fat, like hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated vegetable oils, margarine, shortening.
A good rule of thumb when it comes to assessing fat content on a food label? Avoid saturated fats in general AND look for fat content that is 20% of total calories per serving or less.
So if the packaged item has 100 calories per serving, you want to see a fat content of 20% or less.
4. Refined carbs
When it comes to health, carbs are not the enemy. In fact, whole carbs should be a large part of your whole food plant-based diet. It’s refined carbs, however, that get us into trouble. Refined carbs are often found in packaged foods like white pasta, crackers, cakes, cookies, and bread. These have been stripped of their fiber and nutrients so they enter the bloodstream quickly, which can lead to dangerous spikes and dips in blood sugar.
So do you just go for wheat instead? Well, the food industry can use the word “wheat” on their nutrition facts label even if the grains they’re using are refined. Good news: there are FDA approved words for whole grains to help you navigate your carbs.
If you see these words, you’re usually good to go: sprouted, whole, cracked, sprouted, stone ground.
If you see these words, it means they’re refined: bleached, white, enriched, fortified
A whole food plant-based diet does not include refined sugars. This is all well and good in theory, but if you’re new to eating a plant-based diet, you may not know that the food industry has more than one name for sugar. Actually, there are quite a lot of names for refined sweeteners and they can be hard to spot if you don’t know what you’re looking for.
The good news is, we’ve rounded up a list of the common words for “refined sweetener” that you may see on your food labels:
Sugar in the raw
Evaporated cane juice
High-fructose corn syrup
As you can see, added sugars are often hiding on the nutrition facts label! Choose foods without sweetener or with whole sources of sweetener like date syrup, dried fruit (these can be processed into paste/syrup so dates, raisins, prunes, etc.) and whole fruit, like apples or bananas.
Remember that nutrition labels list ingredients in order of quantity, from highest to lowest so if any type of sugar is in the first 3-5 ingredients you may want to place that product back on the shelf.
Dietary fiber is essential part of a whole food plant-based diet. Fiber can help reduce risk of stroke, heart disease, type 2 diabetes...and it’s only found in plants! That’s right, animal products don’t naturally have fiber. Choose foods with at least 2-3 grams per serving.
You want to see zero cholesterol on the label. If the item’s nutrition facts have cholesterol over zero, that means there are animal products so you can pass over those.
Giving new meaning to “off label”
In the end, remember that a whole food plant-based diet is about eating the rainbow and is mostly comprised of fresh and frozen produce and whole grains. In other words, there are not too many labels to read!
When it comes to reading nutrition labels, look for:
A 1:1 ration of sodium or less (100 calories per 100 mg of sodium)
Fat content that is 20% of total calories per serving or less
Sneaky words for sugar
2-3 grams of fiber per serving
Zero cholesterol - plant-based foods don't have cholesterol!