If you’re anything like me, you don’t particularly care for grocery shopping. You don’t like taking the time to go, the effort to walk the aisles and having to make decisions about what to purchase. On the one hand, you wish the store had just one version of whatever you need, so you could get in and get out quickly; and on the other, you’re glad there’s some choice so you can get what you want in terms of cost, size of container and brand preference.
And it’s not any easier when you stop by the deli or convenience store to grab a snack or beverage. The shelves are packed with boxes, bags and bottles that could satisfy the need (whether physical or emotional), if only you could decide where to start with all the bright labels, eye-catching fonts and nutrition claims on the packaging.
Organic. Low fat. Reduced fat. Fat free. 0 grams trans fats. Sugar free. 40% reduced sugar. Made with whole grain. High in fiber. Gluten free. 2x the protein. 25% less sodium. Verified Non-GMO. All natural.
I mean, honestly, how on earth are you supposed to know where to start with all of that?
When picking a processed food or beverage (and by “processed”, I mean it comes in a box, bag or bottle), you start by reading the back of the package and not the front. This is because the most important information on a food package is contained in the Nutrition Facts label and the Ingredients list, which is usually on the back or side of the package
I know, I know, it’s a total drag to have to read the fine print on a label. So let me be clear about something…
You are not serious about cleaning up what you put in your body until you are ready and willing to read every label on every package of food or drink that you buy. Period.
Believe me when I say that I wish we all lived in a society where the products available on store shelves could be consumed in full confidence that they would provide nourishment. That the big claims on the front of the package were accurate, meaningful and consistently used. That we could trust the food companies to have our health and well-being as their primary priority. Unfortunately, we don’t and I don’t see it changing any time soon, especially for those of us who live in a capitalist country.
Let me tell you about the time that this became ridiculously clear for me.
I started reading food labels fairly regularly in 2002. It didn’t really change my buying behavior at first; rather the practice simply increased my awareness of what was actually in the products I had been purchasing for years. Of course, I didn’t understand some of the words and didn’t know if I should care or not, so I kept reading and buying the same stuff… at least in the beginning. Slowly, over several years, I increased my knowledge about what the ingredients meant and became almost militant about reading food labels. This commitment to consuming real food as often as possible reached a new pinnacle a couple of years ago when I got to the point that I was ready to walk away from any product (even if it meant changing my meal plan) based on what the food label said.
About that same time, my husband and I were out for one of our weekend long walks around Manhattan. Normally I carry my reusable water bottle no matter where I go, but I had forgotten it that day. As we were both thirsty, we stopped into one of the many corner stores in the city to purchase a beverage. My husband grabbed a bottle whose name implied that the contents were vitamins and water and headed for the cashier. I grabbed his arm and asked if I could read the bottle. With only a slight roll of his eyes, he complied and, low and behold, the first ingredient was water (as expected) and the second ingredient was crystalline fructose (i.e., sugar). The label went on to tell us that there were 13 grams of sugar per serving and there were 2.5 servings in the bottle. That means, my husband could have easily downed 32 grams of sugar in an attempt to hydrate himself and boost his vitamin intake.
Honestly, it’s ridiculous. And we shouldn’t have to be this diligent, but we do. So, let me give you some basic guidelines about how to read the label and what to look for.
Nutrition Facts Label
This is the key to understanding the rest of the information on the label because every other number on the label is based on that serving size. In this case, the serving size is 1 ounce (oz) and that means there are 123 calories and 4 grams (g) of fat in 1 oz.
Keep in mind that the serving size may or may not represent how much of the food you eat at one time. Rather, it’s what the company says the serving size is. If I choose to eat more than 1 oz of this product, then I am also choosing to consume more than 123 calories and more than 4 g of fat from this food.
For these Saffron Road Falafel Crunchy Chickpeas, 1 oz is about how much I would eat at one time. However, if this were a pint of ice-cream and I was in the mood to really indulge, I could easily eat half the pint… which would be two servings (as there are usually four “servings” in a pint of ice-cream).
2. Pick a product that has 0 grams of trans fats.
As I’ve mentioned before, the only truly bad fat is trans fat. Fortunately, it’s one of the things that companies have to list, so do your best to ensure that number is a zero.
Of course, the food code contains a provision that, if the product contains less than 0.5 g of trans fats, the label can say 0 g. So, it’s not a guarantee that you won’t get any trans fats, but at least the amount will be minimal. (If you want to be doubly sure there are no trans fats, look for hydrogenated oils or partially hydrogenated oils in the ingredients list, which is discussed further below.)
3. Pick a product with 5 g of sugar or less.. unless you are consciously indulging.
Lots of foods that don’t taste sweet or are meant to be “health foods”, have plenty of sugar in them. The only way you will know for sure is by reading the label. If you are picking a product to be your dessert, then by all means I understand that it will likely have more than 5 g of sugar in it.
Otherwise, stick to products that have less than 5 g of sugar… in the amount of the food you will eat. That means if a serving is 1 oz, there are 5 g of sugar per serving, and you normally eat 2 oz, you would be getting 10 g of sugar at one time and that would count as a dessert.
4. Check out how much fat and protein are in it.
I’m not going to give you any hard and fast rules about how much fat or protein to look for, as the type of food you are buying will influence what these numbers could be. For example, coconut oil is going to be all fat and stewed tomatoes will have none, but both of these foods can be a wonderful part of a healthful way of eating. I only want to point out that these numbers are on the label because I have told you that getting enough protein and healthy fat are two of my top five ways to use the power of food to your advantage.
I’m sure you’re starting to think that I sound like a broken record, and I have to repeat it again here because it’s the key point: you should aim to eat real food as often as you possibly can. In doing so, you will reduce the chemical burden on your body and give yourself the opportunity to thrive.
To that end, here are the key things to look for in the ingredients list along with two examples for you to reference.
1. The shorter the ingredient list, the better.
There’s no guarantee that a product with three ingredients is more healthy than a product with twelve ingredients. However, fewer ingredients generally means less processing and that’s a good thing! Remember, if you were to buy a fresh cucumber and ingredients lists were mandated for produce, the ingredients list would have one item listed: cucumber.
Just glancing at the examples above, snack option 1 is the better choice because it is shorter, even before we get into more details as follows.
2. The fewer lab-created ingredients, the better.
We’ve talked about the problems with preservatives, artificial colors, artificial flavors and natural flavors. And I’m sure you’ve heard someone say that you shouldn’t eat foods you can’t pronounce or don’t recognize. (Although it’s only a generalization unless you have extensive knowledge of foods outside of your own culture like pho, quinoa, açaí berries, gyro and turmeric.)
In the above examples, the red words were highlighted to show those ingredients that should make you pause before purchasing that food or beverage as they are the result of science experiments.
3. Ensure there are no ingredients you are trying to reduce or avoid.
Obviously, if you have a food allergy, you know you are trying to avoid the foods to which you are allergic. Beyond this, if you have a food intolerance or sensitivity, you also try to avoid certain foods. Because absolutely any food can have a negative impact on a person, I could have highlighted every ingredient. Rather than doing that, I highlighted the most common ones in green to which people are allergic, intolerant or sensitive.
Plus, when you are focused on eating healthy, you will reduce or eliminate certain foods… like sugar and other sweeteners. Reading the ingredients label is the only way to ensure that anything you are trying to avoid isn’t included, whether or not you can taste it.
Now you know why you need to read the label of every packaged food or beverage that you consume. It doesn’t mean you have to change your choices (after all, that’s part of the fun of being an adult!). At the same time, by reading every label you will increase your awareness of what you are eating and drinking so that you can make an informed decision.
Bottom line: Reading labels is a necessary step in you choosing your food to change your life.