I’m definitely an advocate for eating delicious, energy-giving nutrient-dense foods that help you to be healthy and keep to your optimal weight.
When you eat real and whole foods – foods that tend to be stocked in the very first section of the supermarket as you walk in – you seldom have to think about food labels. Fresh fruit and vegetables don’t come with a label, and neither do straight up cuts of meat (except for the pre-packaged cuts, which have labels to show the price and weight).
But when it comes to foods that have been processed in some way or ready-cooked meals, those labels can become a mine-field.
Food labels contain a lot of useful information, but it can be difficult to make sense of it all. Fortunately, you can make healthier choices without having to learn a lot of complicated scientific equations or mathematical calculations.
This is a simple guide to clearing up the most common sources of confusion about food labels, so you can eat more healthily.
Common Sources of Label Confusion
- Regard all sugars equally. Manufacturers sometimes use many different names for sweeteners, knowing that consumers may be trying to avoid sugar. Sugar is an “anti-nutrient”, which means that not only are you getting a lot of empty calories, it also uses up small amounts of valuable micro-nutrients to be processed. In other words, it actually costs you, nutritionally speaking, to eat sugar! Plus, it metabolises into advance glycation end-products (AGEs), which, speed up aging. Click here for a list of sugars, “by any other name”.
- Pay careful attention to serving sizes. Portions are another tricky area. Labels sometimes display the figures based on a half portion. You may expect to get 4 servings out of a small ice cream container, but does the label correspond? Make sure you keep a look out for those serving sizes.
- Consider the true value of “healthy foods”. There are many foods that are sold with “healthy” labels or brands that make it sound as if the food is good for you. Many of these are simply marketing terms, designed to help us feel as if we are being healthy, but may not necessarily be good for us. As an example, many foods that are “fat free” compensate by loading up with sugar. Similarly, many gluten free goods have to have something else included to provide the binding ability that comes from the gluten. The bottom line, read the label and know what you’re buying to eat.
- Be vigilant about trans fats. The “trans” fats found in many processed foods have been associated with heart disease and other health issues. A product may contain these fats even if the label says “0 grams.” That’s because, in the US, the FDA allows this as long as the amount is below 0.5 grams per serving, and there is no requirement to disclose trans-fats in the UK or in Europe. Your best protection is to eat mostly whole, natural foods.
- Beware those 100% labels. These labels sound good, but even if something is labelled as “100% whole grain”, this does not mean that it is the only ingredient in the pack. What else is in it? The item that the food contains the most of, by weight, appears first on the ingredients list of a food label. What else is on the list? Always check the label to ensure that whole wheat or some whole grain is listed as the first ingredient and check that the other ingredients are things that are healthy for you too.
Diet plays a big role in the quality of our life and our overall well-being. Learn to read food labels like a pro and make healthier choices for you and your family.
Will you start today?