How to make a better decision about what groceries to buy, by learning to read food labels.

First off, this is a huge topic with new information constantly coming out.  In fact, many books have been written to explain how to read labels and ingredients.  So, what I hope to achieve, is not to teach you everything about food labels, or just to count calories, look at percent fat, or how much vitamin A is in something.  I hope to get a few simple healthy ideas across that you can use today on your next purchase.  However, I highly recommend purchasing a book, or researching on the internet, to gain more insight into the verbiage used as tricky marketing.

First off food labels are broken down into two main parts.  First, a white box labeled “Nutritional Facts”.  The second main part, and in my opinion the more important part, is the list of ingredients, which is under the nutritional facts.  The first step to making better purchases is to start reading the labels of everything you already have in your pantry.  The reason for this is for you to familiarize yourself with ingredients, serving sizes, and how many calories, fats, sugars, carbs, etc are in the foods you already eat.  This way the next time you go to the market you have an idea of what would be healthier.

Things to realize while familiarizing yourself with the nutritional facts:

  1. Serving size- are you eating just one serving or are you eating more
  2. Sugar – a lot can be discussed about sugar, but if you are going to consume sugar there are some sources that are better than others; such as fruit vs. doughnuts
  3. Fat and cholesterol – don’t be scared as we do need fat (not trans fat) and cholesterol in our diet to build cells, hormones, and much more, consult with your healthcare practitioner for more information as it pertains to your personal situation and health
  4. Fiber– fiber can be good if your digestive system can handle it, there are two general types soluble and insoluble
  5. Sodium – the problem here is that generally most products are using processed salt for flavor and preservative while the better choice would be sea salt, without salt we will die, but that doesn’t mean to over consume it either
  6. Carbohydrates– much like sugars there are good sources and unhealthy sources; such as vegetables vs. white flour bread.

Food labels may seem like the manufacturer being nice and showing you exactly what is in their product; such as fat content, number of calories, etc.  But, food labels are often used as a way to sell the product, and hide unhealthy facts.  Not all foods are required to have food labels; in fact there are many foods and products that are exempt from labels for various reasons.  The true way to find out if a product is nutritious is to learn to read not only the nutritional information, but more importantly the ingredients.  For example, manufacturers use the nutritional information to make claims such as: fat free, low sodium, sugar free, low fat, reduced fat, good source of calcium, etc.  But don’t be fooled.  Let’s look at an example of food label trickery.  Regular peanut butter with a two table spoon serving size may have 191 calories while the reduced fat peanut butter will have 187 calories; I am sure many of us can hardly call that reduced.  Even though it may be reduced in fat the overall calories are nearly the same.  Another example is in purchasing chicken.  Currently some experts say that the healthiest chicken that can be purchased is the 100% organic, “free range”, antibiotic free, and steroid free chicken.  However, this phrase “free range” is a tricky one. The USDA definition of free range is that the farmer demonstrated that the birds were allowed continuous free access to the outside for over 51% of their life.  Some farmers actually allow the chickens to be outside eating bugs and walking around, producing healthier meat with less cholesterol, more omega 3’s, and less fat.  While some farmers have the chickens inside but allowed to roam around “cage free” with access to the outside, which doesn’t mean the chickens actually go out side.  Recently, there has been some studies that suggest that free range chickens maybe more prone to diseases, than chickens kept in cages.  However, as we raise more free range chickens, we will develop better methods of disease prevention.

So lets get to what is on the inside…the ingredients.  Under the nutritional facts is the list of ingredients.  The ingredients are listed from largest quantity first to least quantity last.  Some ingredients are not legally required to be on labels and some are considered such a small quantity that they are not required to be on the list at all.  So a simple rule of thumb here is the fewer ingredients the better.  For example, the ingredient list for orange juice should contain just orange juice.  But often you will see orange juice with other ingredients such as sweeteners, and color additives.  Sometimes you will even see water as the first ingredient then sugar and then fruit; so basically you are drinking sugar water flavored with a little fruit.  In fact many juices will use other fruit as cheep fillers like apples, pears, and grapes.  There is nothing wrong with fillers, but say you are buying pomegranate juice for health benefits; you would want less filler and more pomegranate juice.   As far as juices are concerned look for 100% juice with no sugar added.  This brings us to the next issue in the ingredient list, the additives.

Typically, there are some basic additives we see very commonly; color, sugar, salt, and preservatives.  But, we are trying to eat healthy and we want organic whole food without any additives, food coloring, or preservatives.  As far as color additives, yellow 5 and red 40, and six other widely used artificial colors, are linked to hyperactivity and behavior problems in children; according to the nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest. Two British studies found other dyes (such as Blue 1, Blue 2, Green 3, Orange B, Red 3, and Yellow 6) and the preservative sodium benzoate to adversely affect kids’ behavior. The UK is already phasing many of these dyes out.  Another additive that has been the center of controversy is high fructose corn syrup or HFCS.  Recently there have been a few studies on HFCS, a sugar replacement sweetener.  These studies have shown how some of the manufactures of HFCS, are making HFCS that contains mercury.  It is estimated that Americans consume about 12 teaspoons of HFCS per day, but the younger generations typically consume more than the average.  Mercury in HFCS is a big concern, being that mercury is toxic to our body; especially to our nervous system and brain.  Let’s look at an example of food additives. One brand of organic peanut butter has the following ingredients: peanuts and salt.  A different brand has these ingredients: roasted peanuts, corn syrup solids, sugar, soy protein, salt, partially hydrogenated vegetable oils (rapeseed, cottonseed and soybean) to prevent separation, mono and diglycerides (to improve creaminess), minerals (magnesium oxide, zinc oxide, iron phosphate, copper sulfate), vitamins (niacinamide, pyridoxine hydrochloride, folic acid).  I think it is pretty clear which peanut butter would be the cleaner healthier choice.

In summary, learn how to read and understand your food’s labels.  Having this understanding about what is really in your food, will keep you from being fooled by marketing slogans like “reduced fat” or “low calorie”.  You will also be able to read the ingredient list and make a good decision about, is this food a healthy choice or not?  Finally, if your healthcare practitioner is advising you to reduce calories, reduce salt, or avoid substances that you are allergic to, you will know how to figure it out.  A fitting quote is one of the Abraham Lincoln “you may fool all the people some of the time, you can even fool some of the people all of the time, but you cannot fool all of the people all of the time”.

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