This month we wanted to address another common topic we encounter with our patients: how to read food labels. We are happy that as a society there is growing concern about what is in the food being consumed, however, reading food labels can be challenging, tricky, and even deceptive. What is in a product is important to many but worth considering at the same time is the intended role of that food/product. To satisfy this, a pertinent question could include, am I choosing this food for calories or nutrient content? Oftentimes people want to cut carbohydrates and fats, and some want to add fiber to their diet. Reading and understanding each nutritional fact is difficult, and time staking at the store. The goal of this article is to help you understand the easy and essential ways to read labels according to your quest.
To start, let’s look at the label with a skeptical eye, considering the following key points.
- DON’T LET THE MANUFACTURERS FOOL YOU
One of the best ways to prevent being fooled is to ignore claims on the product. Sometimes labels have printing on the front to lure you with exciting terms like fresh and natural even though they are not fresh, thus affecting customer’s decision-making. The manufacturer knows many will believe what is exhibited on the eye-catching label.
Tip: Don’t stop at the front label. Go right to the nitty gritty and check out that ingredient list as the first 3 ingredients are the most abundant and thus contributing most to any nutritional value. Additionally, if the list is long, it means that it is most likely highly processed, which correlates to low nutritional value.
- INGREDIENT LIST
Digging deeper into that ingredient list, let’s make sure to take home two principles, being the ingredient order and the pronunciation. I like to simplify things so let’s do that. As noted above, those first ingredients are the most abundant. The point here is regarding deceptive advertising. Manufacturers love to tell us some amazing ingredient is in their product; but it is interesting how many times it is at the tail end of ingredients list or in a processed form of that great ingredient. Make sure what you seeking is abundant enough to make a difference. An example would be a product that it contains turmeric, which is great for joint health. It is probably not going to benefit you much if that ingredient list could stretch down your arm (meaning it is likely highly processed) or if turmeric is toward the end of the list. If it is at the end of that list of many ingredients, perhaps in the case of something like turmeric, one may be better off using a supplement as to acquire a solid concentration for therapeutic purposes. However, it is simply for taste, then being at the bottom of the list might be just fine. This is once again is why we like to ask, what is the role of this food or food product.
That brings us to pronunciation. Play along with me for a minute. Out loud, say “almond.” That was easy, right? Now say “sodium metabisulphite.” A little more difficult? A lot of people might ask, “what the heck is that.” I often wonder if our body even knows what to do with it. The almond has natural chemical structure but things like sodium metabisulphite doesn’t occur naturally and yet it is used to preserve foods. In my head I see a cartoon image of my stomach asking the question, what do you expect me to do with this.
Tip: The best ingredient lists are short and made of up things you can both pronounce and identify.
What is more important, calories, carbohydrates, or fat? We argue calories, especially when you are choosing food for weight control. Don’t be too stuck on the total carbohydrates or fats if weight control is the goal as those things are actually necessary for a healthy, well balanced diet. Calories is king because, if you only care about one, such as low carbohydrate concentration, the calorie content can be out the roof due to high fat concentration. Either way, the calories will ultimately play the biggest role in your weight management.
Tip: Concentrate on calories per serving so long as the ingredient list satisfies your needs.
- SERVING SIZE\AMOUNT
The number of servings per container is a good thing to consider. It is amazing how small packages can be misread and the label will indicate there are several servings in the package, thus offering the appearance of only modest caloric, fat, or sugar density in each serving. To this I would ask, does that serving size seem reasonable?
Tip: Looking at servings per container, be sure the suggested serving size is consistent with what you expect to consume in one sitting.
- PERCENTAGE DAILY VALUE
Why is this percentage important? It shows the percentage of nutrients the food/food product provides based on a 2000 calories diet. This can be a great help in understanding if one’s diet is providing specific macro and micronutrients.
- SATURATED FAT
The research is very mixed on saturated fat and how it affects health. For each study suggesting saturated fats contribute to inflammation, negative changes in cholesterol, or increased cardiovascular risk, there are studies finding no correlation.
Tip: Concentrate on what form the saturated fat comes in. Certainly if good health is the goal, saturated fats from grass-fed meat or coconut oil can be a much better option than saturated fat from fast food or pastries.
- TRANS FAT
These occur naturally in animal fats. This type is not considered to have negative health implications. However, artificial trans fats are another story. These are the ones to avoid and can be found on the ingredient list as hydrogenated oils.
Tip: If you see trans fat on the label, check the ingredient list to find the potential source. A good habit would be to avoid those products that contain hydrogenated oils.
Suggested daily intake of sodium should be around 1500mg per day. Typically about 70% of sodium intake comes from the food eaten outside the home (eating out) or in processed foods.
Tip: If you see high sodium content and you are already having health issues, consider choosing something that occurs naturally, such as salads, greens, nuts, seeds, unprocessed meats, etc. Too much sodium intake can contribute high blood pressure amongst other health issues.
- ADDED SUGARS
Added sugar can be in naturally occurring forms and artificial/processed forms. A simple rule of thumb is that the sweeter something is, the more artificial flavoring or processed forms of sweeteners are in it. Interestingly, some of these still cause an insulin response on the body and yet allow the label to reflect less sugar and carbohydrates. Good examples of this are Splenda, aspartame, and NutraSweet. Research has also shown that such artificial sweeteners are linked to seriously life altering conditions, such as inflammatory bowel disease.
Tip: Sugar found naturally, such as in fruit, are going to be more vitamin and nutrient dense. If you want to choose healthy, seek foods and food products that have natural sugar sources.
Fiber, what’s not to like. It fills you without requiring food to be as calorically dense and it therefore provides satiety. There is both soluble fiber and insoluble. The insoluble doesn’t break down and is provided by sources such as whole grains and vegetables. Soluble fiber comes from sources such as oatmeal and fruits. Soluble fiber slows down the digestion process, causing less of an insulin spike. Some research also suggests soluble fiber can mildly reduce cholesterol.
Tip: If you have constipation, consider boosting your insoluble fiber intake as it can improve gastric motility and softness. If you have high cholesterol, consider boosting your soluble fiber. Of note, beans and lentils are good sources of both soluble and insoluble fiber.
TO SELECT PRODUCTS WITH HEALTHY LABELS
1. Don’t focus on front labels to lure you into their tactics.
2. Always read the ingredients first to see mainly what the product contains.
3. Always check the first 3 ingredients for saturated fats, sodium, and added sugar.
4. Avoid processed food products.
5. A serving of food labeled “LOW SODIUM” should contain sodium maximum of 140 grams of sodium.
6. One serving of Low-Fat food can have a maximum of 3 grams of fat
If the goal is better health, simply your shopping by trying to steer from processed foods and don’t get into tricked by those marketing schemes of the manufacturers. It is hard to go wrong if you simply try to eat whole food or as we would suggest, real food, as oddly enough, those foods don’t have or need labels.