Reading labels is a tricky business. Consumers are more health-conscious than ever so food manufacturers often use misleading tricks to convince people to buy their products. Therefore, it’s essential we know how to sort out the junk from the truly healthy foods with just a glance at the back of packages.
Don’t Be Duped By Claims on the Front
Front labels try to lure you in with health claims that sound like solid choices but often fall short. For example “multigrain” sounds nutritious but really just means that there is more than one type of grain in the product, which most likely includes refined grains. “Organic” says very little about whether the product is healthy or not. For example, organic sugar is still sugar. And even “no added sugar” is deceptive. Artificial sugar substitutes could be added or an item may naturally be very high in sugar.
Flip to the Back and Investigate
Since front packaging can’t be trusted, where we really want to focus our attention is on the back label, starting with the ingredients. Ingredients are listed by quantity, from highest to lowest. Try to choose products that list whole foods as the first three ingredients, and be skeptical of foods with a long list of additive ingredients. The first few ingredients also help distinguish if the label is just ‘selling’ the product as healthy. For example, a loaf of bread may be labeled “whole grain,” but if “enriched” or “wheat” flour is among the first few ingredients listed, it is not actually 100% whole grain. We want the first ingredient to be “whole wheat/grain flour.” The next thing you should look at is the actual nutrition label. These labels can seem overwhelming if you don’t know what to pay attention to, but here are the key items to look at:
Instead of thinking of calories as “bad,” consider that they are simply a measurement of how much energy a food supplies to the body. Think of calories in terms of a daily “budget.” Once you see the calorie content for an item, think about whether or not it’s something that fits within your daily “budget.” Also, pay careful attention to serving sizes since calories can be deceiving if you eat more than one serving of an item.
Instead of trying to look for items with the lowest fat content, look instead at the type of fat in foods. Ensure that food contains no trans-fat, is limited in the saturated fat, and instead is based mostly on heart healthy mono- and polyunsaturated fats. For items such as meat, to be considered “extra lean” it must be 7 grams or less of fat per serving.
Just like calories and fat, carbohydrates sometimes get a bad rap yet they are vital for energy and overall health. However, ideally the carb content of a single serving of a particular food should not exceed 40 grams. To quickly tell if a product is a complex carbohydrate rather than a simple carb, look at the fiber content. Aim for at least 4-5 grams of fiber per serving. Fiber helps balance blood sugar levels, slow the digestion of carbohydrates for long lasting energy, and help us feel full and satisfied.
Try to limit sugar as much as possible because it serves simply as empty calories and can lead to cravings, unbalanced blood sugars, and an increase in stored fat. Look for products that have less than 6 grams per serving. Sugar goes by many names so take a good look at the ingredient list for its varying forms. Sugar can also be known as brown rice syrup, invert sugar, coconut sugar, corn sweetener, molasses, malt syrup, maltose, and evaporated cane juice.
Protein is essential for building lean muscle that helps boost the metabolism. It’s also the macronutrient that takes the longest to digest, which means it keeps us satisfied for longer. Look for 5-15 grams for a good source of protein as a snack and 20-30 grams for ample protein as part of a complete meal.
Ignorance is not always bliss when it comes to fueling the only body we have. But the best thing about looking at food labels is that you get to decide what you put in your body!