Reading food labels: What you need to know

There are few things more overwhelming than trying to figure out what to buy in a supermarket.  There's a lot to look at on food products.  Health claims, colors, images, branding, nutrition facts and ingredients are all on one box/bag/jar/can of food.  What do you look at first?  What's important?

 

I'm going to simplify it for you:

Ignore everything (and I really do mean everything) except the ingredient list.  That is the only detail that needs consideration.

Let me walk you through why I never look at nutrition facts (calories, fat, protein, carbs, etc).  The nutrition facts only mean something in the context of the food, which you get from the ingredients.  Out of context, nutrition facts are meaningless.  I must go to the ingredients to know what this food product really is.  Once I have determined if a given product is a good option or not, I have no need to look at the nutrition facts.  The facts are what they are and if I were to compare 2 packages side by side with identical safe ingredients, their nutrition facts would likely be quite similar.

Eating real, whole foods free of preservatives, fillers, emulsifiers, stabilizers, food colorings, etc can make you feel amazing pretty fast!  I see it happen every day.

On the flip-side, eating food products with too many sweeteners and other undesirable ingredients will absolutely impact your blood sugar, hormonal system, digestive system, detoxification pathways, immunity, fertility, energy, skin, brain function, sex drive, sleep, potential for headaches and pretty much every other undesirable symptom.

 

Ingredient List 101:

 

  • If you don’t know what one of the ingredients is, avoid the product.
  • If you can’t take one of the ingredients out of your fridge, cabinet or pantry, avoid the product.
  • If the ingredient list is a paragraph, avoid the product.  When there are many ingredients in a food, it’s become a science experiment.  The company includes a bazillion ingredients because its trying very hard to create certain flavors and textures that don’t naturally exist.  Whenever I see any food product with several ingredients, I put it right back.
  • If there are health claims on the packaging, avoid the product.  As a general rule, I like to stay away from foods announcing their benefits right there on the package.  What you’ll often find with foods that list everything it’s free of (cholesterol free, gluten free, fat free, trans-fat free, etc), is usually free of nutrients as well.  A carrot doesn’t have marketing on it does it?

 

A bit more detail on reading ingredient lists:

Count the number of sweeteners.  Food manufacturing companies know that we are addicted to sugar and they’ll add sugar to every  know you are addicted to sugar and they want you to keep coming back to their products so you'll see sweeteners everywhere!  But consuming sweeteners constantly is going to keep those sugar cravings and addictions up.  Those sweeteners are hiding on places where you least expect them (bread, tomato sauce, chicken and vegetable stock... just to name a few).  Count the number of sweeteners in any given food.  Boxed cereal is notorious for having several sweeteners, including the organic ones.

 

The many names for sweeteners:

  • Anything ending in "ose"
  • "Malt" anything
  • Honey
  • Maple syrup
  • Molasses
  • Cane sugar (this might sound more natural, but it's still sugar).
  • All of the artificial sweeteners (did you know studies show that those who drink diet soda end up eating more?  This might explain one of the reasons many diet soda drinkers struggle to maintain a health weight.)

 

And a whole bunch of things created in a laboratory that you’ll want to avoid:

  • Numbers: Red #2 and Yellow #6 were not created in nature.  They are known to mess with the brain and hormonal systems.  Stay far away from these!
  • Spices.  When you see the word "spices," it typically means MSG, but doesn't need to be labeled as such.
  • Natural Flavors.  Check out this post for how unnatural these natural flavors made in factories are.  
  • Mono and Di-Glycerides. These do not exist in nature and are totally man-made.  Avoid. 
  • Artificial Flavors.  Need I say more?

Let's look at an example...

Last weekend I was in San Francisco and on my layover in Chicago on the way back, I went into one of the more "healthy" options at the airport and came across a bunch of nut mixes and dried fruit.  Seems like a better option than a candy bar or gummy bears, right?  Not so fast.

 

mango_nutrition facts
Nutrition facts alone seem fine. A decent amount of calories, but it is a dried fruit, which has more concentrated sugar. Based on the nutrition facts, it checks out okay.
mango-ingredients
YIKES!!! Poison central. Put the package down and run!

 

 

Ingredients:

  1. Mango. Really, this should be the ONLY ingredient.
  2. Cane Sugar.  Mango is sweet enough.  Would ever add sugar to a freshly sliced mango?  Beware of added sweetener!
  3. Artificial colors FD&C Yellow #5 & #6.  These have been implicated in causing allergies, impacting brain development, altering normal hormonal function, and many other damaging reactions.
  4. Sulfur dioxide (for color retention).  This is commonly added to dried fruits.  Think of apricots.  The organic and dried apricots with nothing added are brown.  Not as pretty as those orange ones, right?  Now you know why the orange ones are still orange.  Sulfur dioxide is a type of sulfate and if you know you are sensitive to sulfates, be careful.

 

What are the best foods to stock in your kitchen?

Those that don’t even have nutrition facts, branding, health claims or even ingredient lists.

Produce, meats, eggs, grains, legumes, spices, etc are all made of one ingredient and have a lot less marketing, if any, on the packages.  These are your safest bets.

TIP: Shopping in the periphery of the supermarket, rather than the middle aisles, makes it easier to avoid these food products as well.

Wanna do a little more reading on this?  Check out the book, Rich Food Poor Food by Mira and Jayson Calton.  They go aisle by aisle giving you a guide of how to shop, focusing entirely on the ingredients.

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