I find it a little upsetting that this subject even deserves a whole blog post. Hopefully I don’t go into too many rants. I just feel strongly about the lies and half-truths that food labels tell. As you’ll see, there’s a lot of ambiguous terms on labels that make it tricky to really know what you’re buying and putting in your body.
How I Read Food Labels:
Buy food without labels
This first rule is the most important. Chances are if there’s no nutrition label then it’s a whole food. This is definitely preferable over processed foods! Rather than scrutinize the sodium content of jarred pasta sauce, why not buy some label-less tomatoes, add some herbs and olive oil and call it a day?
I realize this isn’t always an option. There’s many things I don’t regularly make from scratch because they’re too tricky or time-consuming. But if you’re making a point to prioritize health (and save money), consider making more of your own food.
Read Ingredient List first
This rule is the next-most-important. Unlike a recipe which lists ingredients in the order they are used, an ingredient list lines them up based on how much of each the product contains. If the first ingredient is sugar, it’s probably a good idea not to buy it.
Know the terminology. “Evaporated cane juice” is a fancy word for sugar. It sounds a lot healthier, but it’s the same thing. “Wheat flour” is simply a euphemism for “white flour.” Most “multigrain” breads sound healthier than white bread but still have “wheat flour” as the first ingredient while “100% whole wheat flour” is further down. MSG also goes under many different terms such as “spices” and “yeast extract.” I can’t go into all the crazy terms here, but if it’s an item you currently buy, then it’s worthwhile to Google the ingredients you don’t recognize (and maybe even some you think you do) and make and informed decision.
When I do buy processed foods, I look for minimally processed items. I currently buy whole wheat pasta from Trader Joe’s and whole wheat cereal from Aldi. They both have just one ingredient: wheat. Many things we buy are simply one ingredient – peanuts, peanut butter, unsweetened coconut, unsweetened cocoa powder, real butter, etc.
A good general rule from 100 Days of Real Food is to look for things with less than five ingredients if possible. I also choose to avoid additives I’m not familiar with, corn syrup, and artificial colors and flavors. Here’s a great little video on how to read an ingredient list. And here’s the 100 Days of Real Food definition of Real Foods.
Ignore Health Claims
If the food you’re buying has a label, don’t pay attention to those silly health claims on the front of the package. They hardly mean anything, and are used to make an unhealthy food look healthier. In my opinion, there’s really no such thing as a healthy processed food; there are simply less-bad processed foods (aka minimally processed). You don’t find out which are minimally processed by the front of the box.
“12 vitamins and minerals! 6 servings of whole grains! Made with organic ingredients!”
You find out what’s minimally processed by reading the ingredient list. Real foods don’t make health claims. I do believe that’s one of Michael Pollan’s Food Rules! (Excellent little book if you’re interested in this sort of thing!)
Don’t be fooled by serving sizes
Some packaged products look like a single-serving, but the nutrition label says it is two servings in order to make the daily percentages look healthier. Tricky, tricky. Some undesirable things like fat and sugar don’t need to be listed if a “serving” contains less than .5% of your “daily value” (which is, by the way, an ambiguous and outdated term). So you could very well be eating things that aren’t even listed on the nutrition label!
Nutrients over calories
In my opinion the only calories that count are empty calories. If it’s a donut, for instance, all you’re gaining from it is calories and the weight that results if you chronically overeat or have a slow metabolism. Even if you have a healthy metabolism and don’t gain weight when you eat junk food, you’re likely undernourished because you’re filling up on empty calories! This is why I’m against traditional dieting that counts calories. You may loose weight initially by limiting yourself to “100-calorie snacks” or diet sodas, but your body is probably screaming for some real fuel.
I suggest eating real food cooked from scratch – and by scratch I mean no highly processed ingredients like crescent rolls. Simply forcing yourself to slow down and take the time to cook will lessen your ability to constantly snack. Eating will take effort!
Focus on getting as many veggies as possible in your meals. Veggies are naturally low in calories and full of nutrients. Counting calories is far less effective than simply learning to cook from scratch. Your body deserves to be nourished with lots of healthy foods, not punished with mere bites of processed diet “foods.” Not only that, but those diet foods are ridiculously overpriced…manufactures don’t make large profits off people who make their own food at home.
Not all fat is created equal
I’ve written more in-depth about the different kinds of fat here. Basically unsaturated, saturated, and polyunsaturated are important for a healthy metabolism, feeling full, the absorption of vitamins, and brain function. That’s right – even saturated fats are no longer considered bad. Coconut oil and animal fats are consumed in large quantities by some of the healthiest indigenous people groups in the world.
Trans fats are the bad guys that lead to heart health – even WebMD agrees. But don’t rely on the “Trans fat daily value” column, because most products (very intentionally) have less than .5% per “serving.” Look to the ingredient list, where it goes by the term “hydrogenated oil” or “partially hydrogenated oil.”
Scientists now have changed their minds. Fat doesn’t make us fat. What makes us fat is empty calories such as sugar and white flour, trans fats from hydrogenated oils, and sedentary lifestyles.
Not all sugars are created equal
As of right now, natural sugars like fructose and lactose are still listed in the same “Grams of Sugar” column as corn syrup and white sugar. I just ignore this column entirely and look to the ingredient list to see if there’s any added sugar in the product and what kind of sugar it is. There’s a proposed change that might be made soon to list added sugar as added, but until then it’s a fairly useless column. For instance, if an apple had a label it would boast 11-13 grams of sugar. That’s as much as three Chips Ahoy cookies! Does this mean we should stop eating apples? No way! It just means these labels are misleading.
One thing I actually do like about labels right now is that allergen information is presented clearly. Whenever someone has a question about allergens I can look directly to that part of the label and see if the item contains said allergen and if it was even made on equipment shared with said allergen. Hey, the labeling folks did do something right!
The bottom line is, it’s best to limit your intake of food with labels, and read the ingredient list, not the “nutrition facts” when deciding whether or not to buy a item. If you have any specific questions about this topic, let me know. I know it’s confusing at first! Happy informed eating!