Nutritional values in 4 views
Especially with processed foods, you often don't know what's in them. The nutritional value tables on the back of the label are there for comparison. But let's face it: who knows what to look at and what it all means?
Here is a crash course in "Understanding Nutritional Values" and how you can see in 4 steps which food is better suited for you!
Calories, fat, carbohydrates, sugar, protein, fibre, salt. All this information (with a few exceptions) can be found by law on every processed food product in Germany. This promotes transparency and prevents food manufacturers from including additives or addictive substances such as sugar without putting this information on the label.
The nutritional values of a foodstuff gives you information about its physiological value for your body. Roughly speaking, this means:
Nutritional value tables are designed to help you understand the “value” of food.
What benefits this food has for your body and what reactions it causes in your body.
That's all well and good, but until you have explicitly dealt with the topic of macro- & micronutrients, you probably won't even look at all the information on the back of the label, because you might not know how to interpret this information.
Sure, anyone can compare. But if someone gives me two Chinese texts and tells me to choose the better one based on the content, I'll probably choose the one with the nicer handwriting.
In the end, you're standing in the supermarket and you'll probably choose the one with the most beautiful packaging and/or the one that's cheaper. In a case of ignorance, marketing wins.
To prevent this from happening to you, I will explain here how you can distinguish "good" food from "bad" food on its nutritional values, so that you can make a better decision when in doubt. Not because you have to, but because you can.
Calories, proteins, carbohydrate-sugar ratio, fat.
To tidy up the nutritional value table and make it easier to understand, we will start at the top with the calorific value.
To do this, we must talk about macronutrients. Macronutrients are the three main suppliers of nutrients in your diet, through which your body draws the energy it needs to live.
By energy, I mean calories. They are not the little men who sew your clothes tighter at night, but the unit of measurement for energy. They are always at the top of the nutritional value table under calories. The calorific value is given in kJ (kilo joules) and kcal (kilo calories) and indicates the amount of energy that the food provides in the amount consumed.
I often hear the statement "But 500kcal salad is better calories than 500kcal donuts!”
My question to you: Are there good and bad calories?
No. There are not. Calories cannot be good or bad.
A calorie is a unit of measurement for energy, just as a kilometre is a unit of measurement for distance.
One kilometre, whether on asphalt, sand or water, is always one kilometre. You may need more time to cover a kilometre in water than on asphalt, but the kilometre remains one kilometre.
No matter what the surface, a kilometre is always a kilometre.
In the same way, 100kcal in a donut are exactly the same 100kcal as in chicken or apple!
The macronutrients, i.e. the composition of the foodstuff from proteins, carbohydrates and fats, make the difference due to their different calorie density.
Proteins and carbohydrates both have an energy density of 4.1kcal per gram.
Fat, on the other hand, has 9.3kcal per gram, more than twice as much.
If one food has more fat than another, the high calorie density means that it will have more calories per gram. An example:
An apple weighs 100g on average and has just 50kcal. A 100g donut, on the other hand, already has 424kcal. So you can eat 8 apples and still have fewer calories than a donut.
So 100kcal is always 100kcal. But 100g do not always have the same kcal!
413kcal per donut is not unusual.
The lower the calorific value, the more of a food you can eat before you reach your limit. The "good" or "bad" is determined by the distribution of the macronutrients.
The three macronutrients, or "macros" for short, are proteins, carbohydrates and fats. Apart from providing energy, they naturally have other properties that make them essential for the optimal functioning of your body.
A brief overview:
Proteins (4.1kcal per gram)
Proteins make you full and are also the only nutrient that your body can use to maintain and build muscle. This is especially important because from the age of 25 onwards your body starts to break down cells faster than it regenerates them.
So that your body does not start to decimate your muscle cells, a protein-rich diet is always a great help in maintaining muscle as you get older (i.e. from 24+).
What are the best sources of protein?
- Fish & Seafood
- White meat (chicken & turkey)
- Dairy products
- Nuts (attention, very high calorie density)
- Whey Protein
- BCAA (Branched Chained Amino Acids, already split protein)
Carbohydrates (4.1kcal per gram)
Carbohydrates are saccharides, i.e. sugar, and are divided into three types.
- Monosaccharides, i.e. simple sugars such as dextrose.
- Disaccharides, i.e. dual sugars like the general household & industrial sugar.
- Polysaccharides, i.e. multiple sugars as found in cereals, whole grains and potatoes.
Carbohydrates are the number 1 energy supplier! The simpler the carbohydrate, the faster the energy is absorbed and used by the body.
But: the simpler the carbohydrate and the faster the energy is absorbed and used, the faster the body needs new energy. The more complex the carbohydrate, the more fibre it contains, the longer your body will consume it and the longer you will stay full. Dietary fibres delay the breakdown of carbohydrate in the body and thus delay its absorption and utilisation, which results in a long-lasting feeling of fullness.
The lower the sugar content, the more unsweetened the food. However, do not let yourself get confused, especially with foods containing fruit. Fruit contains fructose, which is listed under "sugar". Even if no industrial sugar has been added, a natural yoghurt with cranberries can sometimes quickly increase to 21g sugar or more. A quick look at the list of ingredients will help. They are usually arranged according to the amount of an ingredient's occurrence. If sugar is very far ahead or even the first food listed, I would recommend reconsidering the product.
Fats (9.3kcal per gram)
Fats are the number 1 flavour carrier and have the most energy. This means that your body can draw more energy from one gram of fat than from carbohydrates or proteins. The disadvantage is that it takes a long time for your body to break down fat molecules and extract the necessary energy from them.
Fat is divided into two sub-categories. Saturated fatty acids and unsaturated fatty acids.
I am telling you this because you often see the info "thereof saturated fatty acids" on the nutritional value tables.
Saturated fatty acids are produced by the body itself. If your body is able to produce these fatty acids itself (which it normally will) and you are constantly taking in excessive amounts from outside, it will not be good for your health in the long term.
Saturated fatty acids are found in meat, sausage, lard, butter, cheese, cream, etc. The easiest way to recognise them is that these fats are solid at room temperature. Room-temperature butter, for example, is soft but not liquid.
The unsaturated fatty acids cannot be produced by the body itself and have to be supplied through food. These omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids are liquid at room temperature and are found in rapeseed oil, olive oil, peanut oil, fatty fish, fish oils, algae, etc.
As they are vital for the body, a sufficient supply of these unsaturated fatty acids is beneficial to health.
So far so good, but how do you read a nutritional table?
1. Calorific value
The first glance goes to the calorific value. Your total calorie intake in relation to your total calorie consumption is the only thing that determines whether you gain weight, keep it or lose weight. If you consume more calories than you burn, you will end up with too many calories left over. Your body does not know where to put this energy, so it is stored in fat deposits. If you burn more calories than you consume, your body must draw the missing energy from existing reserves or reduce its turnover (everything that burns energy).
I prefer to look at the kcal per 100g here because it gives a valid reference for other foods. The lower the value per 100g, the more of this food you can eat to reach a certain number of calories.
Why not the portion quantity?
The indicated portion quantity is always relative and can of course be freely defined by the manufacturer. For example, some deep-frozen pizzas have a portion indication printed with a *asterisk. This asterisk then leads to the explanation that one portion = 1 slice of pizza and does not correspond to a whole pizza.
In addition, the recommended quantity for a portion of muesli is ridiculous. Use a food scale to fill the indicated portion quantity and tell me whether this portion is really enough to fill you up.
The calorific value here in the example is relatively low at 118 kcal per 100g. A frozen pizza has about twice as many calories per 100g. Watermelon has only 28kcal per 100g and a donut... ok, no more salt in the wound.
So after you have compared the calorie density, next go onto proteins. You already know why they are so important. From the age of 25 your body constantly breaks down cells faster than it can renew them. No matter what you do or what your goals are, you should never put your body in a position where it has to break down your muscles. You can prevent this by supplying it with the necessary amount of protein. If you cannot achieve this through your normal diet, you can use supplements such as whey protein.
What you look at in the table and how you interpret it:
How much protein does this food provide per 100g? The higher the number, the better. Here again, it is helpful to look at the portion size. Protein bars in particular are often advertised with containing 30g of protein or more.
This may be true, but the information on the pack then refers to a quantity per 100g. However, a bar usually only has between 30g - 50g portion weight. This is where marketing comes in. So don't get confused. Knowing which portion size is being spoken about is just as important as with muesli!
In this example, the protein content per 100g is around 10g.
For comparison: 100g of chicken breast have just under 32g of protein. Calculated per portion, 34g protein is a solid average! You can work with that.
Check calories, low calories? Good.
Check protein. Protein high? Good.
With these two points, you can often tell the difference between most foods and pick the “better” one. Less calories and more protein are the decisive criteria.
If you still cannot decide or want more information continue down the nutrition table.
3. Carbohydrate-sugar ratio.
Your next look will be at the carbohydrates and the sugar they contain. Has sugar been added unnecessarily or is the food naturally sweet? Especially important for protein bars or other fitness products!
And as sorry as I am to have to tell you this: The worse a fitness bar tastes, the better it probably is based on nutrition.
A little tip to help you interpret other foods: Ask yourself the question
"Does the food have to be sweetened to be in this form or is it naturally sweet?
Strawberry yoghurt, for example, is in its basic form is natural yoghurt. Does natural yoghurt normally have a strawberry flavour? No. Has it been sweetened here? If there are no whole fruits in it, probably.
What do the nutritional values say? A low sugar content despite unnatural sweetness can always be an indication of other sweeteners such as sucralose or aspartame. Chemical sweeteners have fewer calories, but they are not healthier. In this case, just look at the list of ingredients. If sugar is listed there, it has been sweetened.
The greater the difference between carbohydrates and the sugars they contain, the more likely it is that the carbohydrates are polysaccharides, i.e. polysaccharides found in cereals and whole grains. If carbohydrates are already present, then whole grain products should be as abundant as possible. The fibre content will then increase at the same time.
Calories, protein, sugar content. Check!
In the last step you can look at the percentage of saturated fatty acids. The lower the general level of fat, the fewer calories the food usually has per 100g. Lower calorie density and so on. This should now be old news!
The lower the amount of saturated fatty acids from the total proportion, the more unsaturated fatty acids are contained. If only 5g of saturated fatty acids are contained in 20g of fat, then 15g are unsaturated. Simple calculation.
In summary, all key points again:
- The lower the calorie density per 100g, the better. This means that you can eat more of something without eating lots of calories.
- The higher the protein content, the better. This helps you maintain your muscles and protects them from breakdown. You will also stay full longer.
- The lower the sugar content of the food and the higher the difference between sugar and carbohydrate levels, the better. If you are not sure whether the food has been artificially sweetened, check the list of ingredients. These are ranked by the quantity of ingredients used. If sugar is very high in the list, you know what to do.
- The lower the proportion of saturated fatty acids, the better. This increases the proportion of unsaturated fatty acids, which the body can only absorb through food.
But in the end, it always depends on what you want to achieve. In certain situations, it makes more sense to raise your blood sugar levels by eating foods with high levels of simple sugars. Sometimes it makes more sense to keep your blood sugar levels low by eating complex carbohydrates with lots of fibre.
Now you will be fully informed for your next trip to the supermarket!