Why I Don’t Read Nutrition Facts

nutrition label food reading

Disclaimer: I’m not a health and nutrition expert. I’m just a mom who loves to do research about health and nutrition, and I’m simply sharing some of my thoughts and opinions.

I don’t know if it’s just because I’m a new young mom, and this is the terrain of young moms, but it seems like everybody is calorie-counting these days. Everyone is flipping over their cellophane-wrapped granola bars or tilting their cartons of yogurt to read aloud (in alarmed or disgusted tones) the fat and sugar content.

“Wow, look at that! Ten grams of fat!”

“These are supposed to be healthy, but they still have eight grams of sugar!”

I always have a hard time knowing how to respond to these kinds of remarks. I hate to be the nerd pushing up her glasses and stammering, “Well, I dunno, I think it’s actually more complicated than that . . .”

See, I don’t read nutrition facts. I don’t think they actually tell us anything very useful.

My Guiding Questions About Food

When I make food decisions, I try to answer two major questions:

(1) Is it nourishing?

(2) Does my consumption of this food contribute to the flourishing or the degradation of our environment?

And neither of these questions can be answered by looking at the nutrition facts.

The Trouble with Nutrition Facts Labels:

They don’t really give us enough useful information to judge whether something is nourishing to our bodies.

Consider sugars, for example. We all know that too much sugar is a bad thing. But some sugar is necessary in our diets.

However, nutrition facts lump all sugars together, as if they’re all the same. But the truth is, there’s a huge difference in the ways our bodies metabolize sucrose, fructose, and lactose (And a huge proportion of our species can’t tolerate lactose at all). Our bodies also handle these sugars differently depending on what else is in the food, particularly fiber and fat. (Fiber and fat slow down the absorption of sugars. That’s why I believe it’s always good to eat fruit in their whole state, and accompanied by some kind of fat. Strawberries and whipped cream, anyone?)

The nutrition facts will tell you, for example, that a serving of plain, whole-milk yogurt has about as much sugar in it as three Oreo cookies. What they don’t tell you is that your body will treat these two kinds of sugars totally differently, because one is made (hopefully) with natural ingredients, and the other is made (definitely) with industrial ingredients.

And then there’s fat. You already know that I’m all about the saturated fats. I think they’re essential for growth and development. But the nutrition facts still don’t give me the most important details about the fats in the food. The important question, for me, is where that saturated fat came from. Does it come from a natural source, like butter, lard, tallow, or coconut oil? Or is it from an industrial source, like corn oil?

And that’s just the start.

Most nutrition facts labels these days give you a “% Daily Value” rating, which is based on the ludicrous assumption that everyone’s nutrition needs are the same – as if the needs of an adolescent schoolgirl, an athlete, and a nursing mother are all comparable. Ridiculous. Our needs vary tremendously depending on our sex, our age, our stage in life/the reproductive cycle, and our activity level. So I find those number almost meaningless.

And research is increasingly showing us that calories are not all made equal. As this article puts it, “The effect of a calorie in sugar is different from the effect of a calorie in lean grass-fed beef.”

Therefore, I believe the calorie count – along with the sugar and fat count — are pretty much the least valuable, relevant, or meaningful ways to measure the quality and merit of a food.

The nutrition facts don’t come close to addressing the real questions: is this food nourishing to our bodies? Is this food contributing to the degradation of our planet (i.e. the source of all future foods?)

In Search of Good Food

Some of the deeper questions, related to the above, which I also try to consider, are as follows:

  • Was this food grown locally? If not, is there justification in having it shipped here for me? Is this the most ecologically-sound source of nourishment I can find?
  • Were poisons (which are harmful to me as the consumer, the farmers working with the crop, and the land and water in which it grows) used in its production?
  • Is this food close to its original form/state, or has it been significantly altered, in ways my body wasn’t designed to accommodate?
  • Were the farmers fairly compensated?
  • Were the animals treated well, living decent, healthy lives?
  • Is it overly-packaged, creating unnecessary waste?

Again, none of these questions can be answered by reading the nutrition facts. (In fact, if it has a nutrition facts label, chances are, it’s overly-packaged!)

I prefer, in general, to eat foods that come without labels (by which I mean, foods I either helped harvest myself or foods I got from someone else who did – preferably a small, local farmer). But of course I still eat a certain number of foods from the grocery store.

When I do eat food from a package, I do generally examine one thing: the ingredients list. There, I can at least get some idea of what’s inside. I can look for whole, natural ingredients, and be alerted against sneaky fake foods. That store-bought, organic, plain yogurt might be high in sugar and fat according to the label, but I can see in the ingredients list that it doesn’t have anything unnatural in it – just milk, cream, and bacterial cultures.

I also check the labels for answers to my other questions: I check to see if it was grown in my home province, or else a neighbouring state or province. I look for organic certification. I look to see if it’s fair-trade. I also try to look for free-rang/cage-free, though these labels are less meaningful than I’d like. These all help me to decide whether it’s nourishing, and whether its production is contributing to the flourishing or degradation of the planet.

And I admit: I do sometimes look at the nutrition facts, but mostly the bottom portion which examines vitamins and minerals. For example, I was delighted to notice on my package of dried black beans the other day that it contains sky-high levels of folate and magnesium. Excellent. And I was encouraged to note that the organic extra-dark chocolate I sometimes give Lydia has large amounts of iron and fibre (as well as low sugar).

But this information doesn’t guide my decisions to the extent that other factors do.

* * *

I have personally concluded that the best foods are the ones that don’t come in packages and thus come without nutrition facts. And they’re best prepared in traditional ways.

I want my food to keep me healthy. Just like anyone else, I want my food to keep me slim and energized. But I also want it to keep my planet healthy, too. And I just don’t think nutrition facts will help me achieve those goals.

I believe that if I commit to eating a variety of real, locally-grown, unprocessed (or minimally-processed) foods, and if I live an active lifestyle, I don’t have to worry about fat and calories. I’ll be healthy and fit. My food will be nutrient-rich and satisfying.

What do you think? Do you believe there’s merit in reading the nutrition facts?

carrot photo courtesy of Ed Yourdon.
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  1. I do read them, but much differently than most people. Like you, I look at the ingredients first. Calories have no impact on my decision, and neither does fat. I will put it back if it has added sugar, however. Or any type of flour or grains. After several years of steadily gaining weight no matter what I did, I went to see a naturopath this past winter. She diagnosed me with insulin resistance, as a result of the hypoglycemia that runs in my family (reason I went in the first place: I was starting to look like my aunts. Nooooo!). So, nothing sweet, even stevia. No grains, no potatoes, pumpkin or parsnips. Lots of vegetables, meats, good fats, etc. Limited fruit. After I heal my insulin receptors, I can add a little bit back. But I’ll never be able to sit down and eat a meal with a baked potato, buttered roll and a glass of lemonade. Quick digesting carbs and sugars are poison to me; since cutting them out I’ve lost 12 pounds in two months, while being pregnant. While it’s true that some sugar is necessary and there are different kinds, the fact is that almost all processed foods in the American diet have added sugar or HFC, so label-reading is necessary to avoid that.

  2. I don’t generally read them. I will more often check the ingredients list to try and make sure I pick the things with the least additives and preservatives and so on. But my food shopping is much more guided by other values – I pick the organic and fairtrade options when they’re available, I try and buy local (although the one market here clashes with my weekly bible study which sucks), and I buy the products with least packaging.
    In Luxembourg, all groceries are expensive. Many of our friends make the 30 minute drive into Germany to buy cheaper, but the products there are generally “value” brands where the generally quality is lower, the additives are higher, and the distance travelled is further. It means we have a higher food bill each month, but it seems worth it to me to buy and eat products I can trust…
    Fiona Lynne recently posted..to be seenMy Profile

  3. What are your favorite resources (books,websites, etc) for dietary information? The idea of always eating fructose with fat or fiber makes intuitive sense to me. For mental health reasons, I’ve been playing around with how I eat my sugars and noticing that I have fewer issues with concentration when I eat them with fat. Some explanation for that would be great, though.

    • I can’t remember exactly where I read the information about consuming sugars with fats . . . probably Nourishing Traditions by Sally Fallon (I LOVE the first few chapters of that book and highly recommend it for that reason. I’m not that crazy about the recipes, though, which makes up the majority of the book). I also love Nina Planck (I’m a huge fan of her book Real Food for Mother and Baby. I haven’t read her first book, Real Food, but I assume it’s as fantastic as her other one.) Online, I’ve been inspired by gnowfglins.com

  4. I don’t read them either and I am trying to stop Andrew from relying on them for food decisions since they are so often misleading.
    I read the ingredient list and make a decision from there whether to buy it or not. Once I’ve decided to get it I don’t care what the ‘nutritional’ facts or serving sizes are.
    I recently read a (dumb) article that stated a single avocado as four servings because it is so high in fat. The article recommended only eating a quarter of an avocado at one sitting to avoid ‘unnecessary fat’. I was blown away!
    Bekah recently posted..Tandem nursing.My Profile

  5. An excellent article. Some people are just allergic to nuance, they would rather say “a calorie is a calorie” regardless of all personal experience that would indicate that is just not true. Another factor I always take into consideration is how full do I feel after eating this food? This one is hard to quantify, and mostly just comes from personal experience, but I always try to eat a few “filling foods”, especially at supper time to avoid late night snacking. Thanks for this article Kathleen, I will make sure to share it.


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