Fat, protein, sugar, fiber, calories, sodium, and carbs; these are the primary things that the USDA focuses on via myplate.org, and that the media puts in their headlines to draw you in. Yet, as I talk to my clients, family, and friends, it quickly becomes apparent that most of America doesn’t understand what this stuff means. Thankfully, the nutrition label on the back of a food package can help with this, but it’s not always easy.
When it comes to figuring out how “healthy” or “fattening” a food is, it’s not as simple as pointing someone to the nutrition label. First, there is more than one label, as you’ll see. Second, the labels are confusing, as you know if you’ve tried to read them before. Third, the labels can be misleading, as you’ll soon find out. Finally, many people look at the claims on the front of the box and assume that this labeling is designed to help them. Hint – it’s not.
Forget the front of the box
Let’s make this thing easier, right here, right now. Don’t rely on the front of the box for valuable information. In fact, if there are claims made, treat them with skepticism. Even give them a sneer, if you like… Any words, pictures, and fancy lettering on the front of the box are merely advertising for that product, and designed to put the manufacturer’s best foot forward. While legally they can’t say anything they want to say, they do use words designed to make you think you’re making a healthy choice, even when it might not be.
Instead of relying on what the manufacturer wants you to see, look to the labels that are designed to inform you, instead.
So, what’s in this thing?
The instinct is to read the Nutrition Facts label, first, since it’s at the top, always in the same place, and is standardized by government rules and regulations. But, I urge you to skip this label right now. Instead, locate the list of ingredients.
On most packaged foods, the ingredients will be easy to locate, but sometimes you have to look hard. If the list is very short (a blessing) then they might even hide the list in plain sight. One popular raw vegan fruit and nut bar merely lists these items under the name of the bar, for instance:
Banana Nut Bread Bar
Dates – Banana – Cashews – Sea Salt
That ingredient list is pretty good, but you have to look hard to find it, even though it’s right under your nose.The ingredients list, once found, will show all the ingredients that are in that food. You can never tell exactly how much of a food is in the item, but they are listed by volume. Therefore, the more of each item in the food, the higher on the list it will appear. This is why you often see “water” listed first on a sweetened iced tea drink or even a juice box. Sure, it’s mostly water, because water is what takes up the most space. Sweeteners and fruit juice concentrates don’t have a lot of volume, yet can still pack a lot of calories and sugar.
If the list is short, this will be easy. The longer it is, the finer the print and the more likely you are to find that this food is not for you. If the ingredient list is too long, it’s unlikely that you will make it through the whole thing, so either put that food back on the shelf, or knuckle down and read it.
Good guys and bad guys
In the movies, most good guys and bad guys are pretty easy to spot. On an ingredients list, it’s not quite as simple as looking for the black and white hats of the old cowboy movies, but once you know what to look for, you’ll start seeing them quickly.
The biggest offenders (bad guys) are the empty-calorie sweeteners, the processed grains, and the omega-6 heavy soybean, corn, and seed oils (which can cause inflammation throughout the body). These ingredients are cheap to produce, easy to use in manufacturing, and provide almost supernatural levels of shelf-life, which is exactly why they are in there. Again, it’s not for you, it’s for “them” and their profits.
Other things to look for are ingredients that are obviously additives, and not true foods. These often have long names, numbers, and abbreviations, like monosodium glutamate or FD&C Red Dye #40, BHA, BHT, potassium bromate, and bromine. You should ask yourself why these ingredients are in there at all. The answer is that it’s likely to save the manufacturer money, make it rot more slowly on the shelf, or make that food unnaturally palatable to your taste buds so you “can’t eat just one.”
For a complete list of foods to watch out for and foods to focus on, check out this article on TheFitInk.com – Good Guys, Bad Guys
Look, no one is perfect, so there are times when a less than perfect food can be part of an otherwise healthy diet. If sugar or soybean oil appears far down the list, it might be okay to eat every once in a while. One of my favorite Trader Joe’s foods lists canola oil on its list, but the whole package has only 5g of fat. Above the canola oil it lists coconut oil, coconut milk, and tuna, all of which are sources of healthy fats. How much canola could really be in there? Not that much.
The easiest label to read, is no label at all
Most of the foods that you cook at home won’t have ingredients lists because they are ingredients in and of themselves; meat, vegetables, milk, coconut oil, butter, etc. These things should be relatively simple to understand. They may have some ingredients other than the thing that they are, but the list of components should be short and sweet. Packaged foods, on the other hand, might contain ingredients so long that they have to print them very, very small. With some, you almost need a microscope to read them all.
While it is technically possible to have a really long list of ingredients and still be a healthy and a high quality food, the odds are not good. A very long list of ingredients is almost assuredly a sign of a highly processed product. If it’s too long, it’s not usually worth reading, much less eating.
Go! Shop! Eat!
In a few days, we’ll have part two of “Reading the Nutrition Labels” ready to go. In part two, we go beyond what ingredients are in your foods, and take a look at what those numbers mean to you and your diet. First, digest what you’ve read here today, and take your shopping to the next level, improve your health, and lose a few pounds in the process.
See you next week!
Article by Roland Denzel