So I was talking to a friend the other day and she asked how she could tell if a food was fairly healthy or not by looking at its label. In other words, she wanted to know how to read a food label and distinguish between (often shady) marketing rhetoric and the actual truth because she was feeling somewhat duped. As a nutritional consultant, I frequently find myself telling clients to read the label and realized that perhaps this suggestion isn’t so clear-cut an obvious as I think it is. I also believe that the traditional advice given to look at the numbers listed for carbs, fats and proteins doesn’t paint a full (or health conscious) picture. Reading a label does take some practice, but with a few simple guidelines, you can easily begin to separate fact from fiction and leave junk food where it belongs - on the shelves, dying a slow, toxic and non-biodegradable death.
First things first, before jumping into labels …. I would recommend that you try to eat mostly food that doesn’t require an ingredient label, such as free-range meats and eggs, wild caught fish, fresh organic if vegetables and fruits, some nuts and seeds, and healthy fats such as coconut oil and butter from grass fed cows. While a few of these things come with labels, for the most part, you know what they are and what’s in them without having to check the back. Following this method of eating will ensure that most of your food is full of nutrients and not hiding bunches of chemicals, dyes or fragrances that burden your detoxification organs like the liver, kidneys and lymphatic system.
That being said, even some really healthy foods these days come in a package and that’s ok. We don’t live in a world anymore where most of us get vegetables from our personal gardens or milk from the farmer down the road. Most people shop at grocery stores and this requires that food is able to be transported from the supplier to the stores, sometimes over a long period of time. While fresh food is ideal, it’s not always a reality and this is where packaging comes into play. Anything packaged and sold for human consumption must have a nutrition label – however - and this is a BIG however - a nutrition label DOES NOT always mean that the food is, in fact, “nutritious”. It merely states what kind of nutrition, or nutrients, are available in that package. So, let’s get down it ….
1. Read the ingredient list. Ingredients on a nutrition label are listed in order of largest quantity to least. For example: If the ingredient list is something like whole grain oats, modified corn starch, sugar, salt, potassium and vitamin E – you would know that the most heavily concentrated ingredients in that food are oats, corn starch and sugar. Maybe not the best choice. Also important to note when reading ingredients, is the prevalence of chemicals, artificial flavors, sweeteners, and dyes. Your foods should contain real, whole food ingredients with as few of those other fillers (if any) as possible. If your food has a significant shelf life, there is a good chance it’s not going to be very nutrient dense.
2. Check out the amount of sugar in a product. Sugar is extremely detrimental to the body for a number of reasons, and sadly, it is found in both hidden and blatant forms in so many of our food products today. Ideally, you should be consuming less that 25 grams of sugar a day, however, the average American is WELL over this number sitting at around 80-90 grams of sugar daily. That’s roughly 20 tsp. of sugar every single day! If your food product has more than 5 grams of sugar in a serving, you may want to rethink it as a part of your daily dietary habits – save those higher sugar items for treats and occasional splurges. Now, a lot of people ask if fruit fits into this equation. While you still want to keep fruit to 1 or 2 servings daily, fruit is a bit special due to its high fiber content. Fiber slows down the absorption of sugar into your bloodstream helping to mitigate the effects of an instant sugar rush on your insulin sensitivity. As long as your keep your fruit intake moderate, you should fall well within these guidelines.
3. Macronutrient breakdown. Most people will tell you to look at the macronutrient breakdown on a food label – carbs, fats and proteins. While these can be helpful after you have looked over the ingredient list, or if you are tracking your calories or macros, they can also be misleading as standalone advice. For example: (I’m not suggesting this is accurate information) Theoretically, a Lean Cuisine and a meal of chicken, broccoli and a sweet potato with butter COULD have the same macronutrient numbers, and yet, be no where near identical in nutrient density, vitamins, minerals or chemical burdens. So, try to keep that in mind when you are looking at those numbers. 40 grams of protein from a highly processed, isolated whey protein stuffed artificial flavors and sweeteners is NOT going to give you the same benefits as an iron rich, grass-fed steak. INGREDIENTS MATTER. If you have determined that a food is looking pretty good in the ingredient department, looking at how much protein, fats and carbs can THEN be used as a tool if you are looking to make some specific changes to your physique or stay within certain percentages of macros. Fats will be listed first, carbohydrates after that and proteins at the bottom of the label. Sugar will be listed after fiber and total carbohydrates.
4. Steer clear of trans fats. The war on fat has been one of the biggest misconceptions of our modern day and has left people sicker and fatter than ever before. While this blog post could NEVER fit in all the issues with the idea “Eat Fat, Get Fat,” it should be sufficient for now to say that real, whole sources of dietary fat will not, in fact, make you fat. The only fats you should be avoiding are trans fats and denatured, highly processed PUFA’s such as canola, soybean and corn oils. If a label has trans fats listed, steer clear. It’s not even an issue that requires any more investigation than that. If a label has any of those polyunsaturated fats listed above (corn, soybean, canola), and you do decide to eat it, at least make sure that they are non-gmo, organic versions and try not to consume them frequently. These fats are not naturally occurring fats and the process for obtaining them from their “host” often requires chemical solvents and high heat – both which radically denature the fat from its original state and add pro-inflammatory characteristics.
5. Watch out for serving sizes. Sadly, manufacturers are masters at manipulation and serving sizes an easy way to make a food look better than it really is. I’ll give you an example. Green juice, or vegetable juices would seem like a fairly healthy food, right? Lots of antioxidants, phytonutrients, vitamins and minerals. What’s not to love? Well – turn over any bottle of leafy green deliciousness and you’ll see that there is usually a decent amount of sugar. But hey, what’s 15 grams if you’re getting all those nutrients?! Well, take a second glance, and you’ll usually find that 15 grams is for 1 serving size of 6-8 oz. Now, assuming there are 2-3 servings in a bottle, you’re actually getting 30-45 grams of sugar if you decide to down it all in a few chugs. Tricky. Now, this isn’t to say that green juice is bad or full of nasty sugar because it can be a useful tool in cleansing the body and getting in lots of necessary nutrients. However, being aware of and limiting yourself to one serving size can drastically improve your sugar consumption in a day and still give you the benefits you desire. So the main take-a-way: Watch your serving sizes to get an accurate read on what’s going in your body.
Nutrition labels can be daunting at first because, sadly, we live in a world where marketing tends to trump truth. But with a bit of practice and these 5 tricks and tools, you are definitely on your way to becoming a master cipher when it comes to the language of labels. Let me know some of your favorite tips for finding healthy food in the comments below.