How to Decipher a Food Label

It is amazing how confusing dieting has become for the average person these days. Scan the news headlines touting the “newest” studies for just a few hours or watch Dr. Oz for a few weeks and you’re likely to find enough conflicting directions to make your head spin. Even if you do settle on one particular diet to follow it can still be incredibly difficult to know whether or not a particular food falls into your plan or set of ideals. Food manufacturers blatantly put misleading information on packaging to trick you into believing their product is healthy, and hide ingredients under innocent sounding names. Today we’re going to look at ways to decipher these deceptive food labels to ensure you are consuming products that fall in line with your dietary philosophy.

Let’s address the elephant in the room first. Yes, if you only bought whole foods such as fresh cuts of meat, fruits, vegetables, and nuts and seeds then you wouldn’t need to bother with learning how to read a food label. While I believe this the approach we should be taking eighty percent of the time, sometimes the convenience of packaged foods can be incredibly useful. Not everything that is put into a package is crap, and you can find extremely healthy and nutritious selections in a bag or a box if you know what to look for. On the flip side, you could be sabotaging your health without even knowing it if you are unaware of some of the tricks these manufacturers use to hide chemicals and sugar in your food.

Tip #1: Read the Ingredients First

The very first thing that you should be looking at is the ingredient list. I don’t even bother looking at the Nutrition Facts panel until after I’ve examined what is actually in the product. As a general rule of thumb the fewer ingredients listed the better, and bonus points if the ingredients are whole foods themselves.

The next thing to look for is added sugar. You would think that this step would be pretty simple, but manufacturers have become savvy to the fact that we are on the lookout for sugar in the ingredients so they will often times use other names to hide it in plain sight on the label. Here is a list with several common examples to help you out:

  • Obviously anything that has “sugar” in the name: Cane sugar, coconut sugar, beet sugar, turbinado sugar, etc.
  • Anything ending in “ose”: dextrose, sucrose, fructose, lactose, etc.
  • Anything with syrup: High fructose corn syrup, brown rice syrup, carob syrup, etc.
  • Juices: Fruit juice concentrate, cane juice/cane juice crystals
  • Natural sweeteners: Agave nectar, honey, molasses, maple syrup
  • Assorted tricky ones: maltodextrin, diastatic malt, barley malt, mannitol, sorbitol (the “ol” suffix is usually a sugar alcohol and some of these are okay), muscovado, panocha.
  • Dried Fruits: Dates, raisins, cranberries, etc. Technically these are whole foods and are generally okay in small amounts, but most are concentrated nuggets of sugar and add up in a hurry if you aren’t careful.
  • Artificial Sweeteners: aspartame, sucralose, acesulfame potassium, etc.

This list is by all means not complete, but if you are on the lookout for added sugars it is a good starting point. Also, some offenders on the list are worse than others and some are perfectly okay when used in conjunction with other healthy ingredients. It’s hard to make a healthy cookie without something to sweeten it up.

Next thing to be on the lookout for is an abundance of chemicals. Some people go as far as saying if you can’t pronounce it, don’t buy it, but that may be a little extreme. Dihydrogen Monoxide sounds bad, but it’s really just a chemical name for water.  Not all chemicals are bad, but still it helps to err on the side of caution. If you run across something you don’t know, don’t assume it’s perfectly okay to eat. Go do some research on that particular ingredient to vet it. Many times these chemicals are preservatives or flavor and color enhancers that are not going to enhance your health. Things like BHA, BHT, ammonium sulfate, titanium dioxide, MSG, potassium bromate, and sodium benzoate have no business being in food.

Speaking of color, avoid artificial dyes like the plague. If you see a color and a number, like yellow #5 or red #40, that is a sure sign of a dye. I’m not sure how these were ever allowed into our food system, but they can cause severe allergic reactions when ingested. Don’t just look at your food labels, but your supplement labels as well as these are a popular way to color pills. Artificial flavors are another one to stay away from. It simply means “not found in nature,” although “natural flavors” is often not much better due to the lack of regulation around what “natural” means.

The last major item I scan for on the ingredient list are the types of oils (if any) that are in the product. I won’t get into the oil topic in detail, but there are really just a handful of oils that I deem acceptable: olive oil, coconut oil, MCT oil, and avocado oil. All of the other oils are heavily processed and highly susceptible to oxidation. These oxidation byproducts can be highly toxic so it is best to avoid all vegetable oils and industrial seed oils.

Now that you know what to look for in the ingredients list it is worth noting that the ingredients are listed in order of the amount present in the food. The first two or three on the list are probably the major components, and unless you are buying something heavily processed that list is probably only ten deep at the most. This can be helpful when trying to decide if the food meets your standards. If there is a questionable ingredient, but it’s last on the list, you may choose to give that food a pass. It’s up to you determine how strict you are. Some labels may even have the phrase, “less than 2% of the following:” to identify ingredients that are considered in trace amounts.

Tip #2: Determine the Macronutrient Breakdown

The nutrition facts panel is where most people look first to get an idea of the caloric content of their food. You would think this would be straightforward too, but manufacturers have been manipulating serving sizes to make calories and macronutrients appear more favorable than they really are.

Whether or not you are following a strict diet you should probably have an idea of the protein, fat and carbohydrate content of your foods and the overall caloric content. The nutrition facts panel will tell you just that, but it is up to you to recognize the actual size of the serving size. Food manufacturers are allowed to make the serving sizes ludicrously small in order for the food in question to appear low calorie, low fat, low sugar, or hide trans fats. Anything that works out to a half a gram or less per serving can be listed as zero on the label. This is why you’ll see peanut butters with hydrogenated oils list trans fats as 0g. Don’t be fooled, they are in there.

This sort of trickery is also used with sweeteners. This so called Stevia Sweetener lists dextrose (sugar) as the first ingredient, but since the serving size is a one gram packet and the dextrose is likely 50% of that gram they can say less than one gram on the label and claim zero calories. I found it funny that their tagline on the back of the box is “nothing to hide.” Although technically true, it is incredibly dishonest to not overtly disclose that the sweetener is a 50/50 mix of sugar and stevia.

Stevia Label

Nothing to hide? Riiiight

While we are on the topic of sugars, the nutrition facts panel is a great place to determine the actual sugar content of the food item. If you found it on the ingredients panel and want to know exactly how much of it is in there, look here. Again, take serving sizes into consideration because what seems like a relatively small amount can add up in a hurry when using “real life” portions. One of the common ones I find are salsas. One or two grams per tablespoon certainly adds up when you are eating three to four tablespoons at a time. Definitely not worth it when you can find plenty of salsa options with no added sugars.

Last bit on sugar, if your product contains fruit (fresh or dried) the sugar content will be naturally high. I am not here to condemn all sugars as I love the occasional fruit (especially after a workout), but just bear in mind that products containing these can be a sugar bomb waiting to happen. Dates are a common addition to real food bars and you may think you are doing well by choosing an all natural real food option when in reality these are providing more sugar than you would really like to be taking in.

Tip 3: Be Wary of Healthy Claims

The claims on packaged food are not well regulated and manufacturers are allowed place many misleading claims to sell products to unsuspecting individuals. Not all of it is untrue, but I’d rather formulate my own opinion by having a look at the ingredient list first before grabbing something “all natural” or “heart healthy.”

The most abused healthy claim these days is “gluten free.” For the average consumer they equate this claim with healthy, and while the gluten is no longer in the product, there often times are far worse offenders still in use. Health food aisles of the grocery store are stocked full of gluten free junk food that still delivers a boatload of sugar with each box. You know marketers are just trying to cash in on unsuspecting consumers when you see things like bags of peppers marked as gluten free. Not that there is anything wrong with bell peppers, but there was never any gluten in there to begin with!

Generally stay away from items that are fortified or enriched. That just means they’ve lost vial nutrients during the processing steps so they are added back in later, usually in the form of synthetic compounds. Natural flavors is another interesting one. These are often made in the lab, extracted from fruits, veggies, roots, animals, eggs, etc. For example castoreum is natural flavor that is extracted from the anal sacs of beavers. Most (if not all) people I know do not willingly eat the anal glands of beavers so why in the world is this showing up in our food. Manufacturers are not required to put the source of these natural flavors on the label so it really is proceed at your own risk.

Even the Organic label is not quite what it seems. There are levels to be aware of. 100% Organic is actually what it appears to be, but the simple USDA “organic” stamp only requires that the product is at least made of 95% organic materials. The next level down is made with at least 70% organic ingredients and you’ll find that listed as “made with organic ingredients.” At less than 70% they cannot make organic claims on the main packaging, but may list individual organic components on the ingredients list.

USDAOrganic

Always a good place to start

Organic, by rule, also has to be hormone and antibiotic free, but these claims can also be made on non-organic items. I typically look for meats with this claim. In addition I look for the grass fed label with sourcing beef.  Grass fed beef typically contains more nutrients and has a better fatty acid profile than their conventional counterparts. This labeling can get a little dicey too as meat that was grass fed, but then grain finished (fed grains the last couple of weeks) can still be labeled as grass fed. Some meats will be labeled as grass fed and grass finished, but if you really want to know where your meat is coming from just ask your local butcher.

When shopping for fish always go for the wild caught variety. The omega-3 fatty acid content of wild caught fish is usually greater than their farm raised counterparts. You may also see the phrase “sustainably harvested” on seafood labels, which basically means the fish was harvested with minimal environmental impact and in a way as to not deplete the population.

Looking at egg labels gets interesting. You will see things like pastured raised, cage free, free range, omega-3 enhanced, and vegetarian fed to cause more confusion. Really most of it is a ploy to get you to buy more expensive eggs. Pastured eggs are arguably the the best as the hens are allowed to roam free in pastures, eating plants and insects. Cage free, on the other hand, simply means each individual hen is not in a cage, but they can still be in an overcrowded hen house. Free range allows the hens the option of going outside by putting a small window in the house, although whether they actually do so is unknown. Omega-3 enhanced eggs are from hens whose feed has been supplemented with an omega-3 food source like flaxseed, which actually increases the amount of omega-3s in the resultant eggs. Finally, vegetarian is simply a label to show the hens have not been fed any animal byproducts, like other dead hens, pigs, cattle, etc. All organic eggs are vegetarian fed.

Bottom line on eggs, choose pastured for your best bet, or talk to your local farmer to determine if his eggs live up to your standards.

One last tip for buying packaged food is to look for the “Non-GMO Verified” label. GMOs are a controversial topic, and may or may not be the devil when it comes to our health, but I would rather stay away from them until more is known. Even as a big fan of science, I find it hard to believe we can improve upon what nature has to offer, and I think our declining state of health the last several decades speaks volumes about what our tinkering has done. If you must buy canned tomatoes, sauces, or other convenient goods look for this non-GMO label and stuff like BPA or plasticizer free (which is common for canned goods) to ensure you are getting the safest product on the shelves.

NonGMO

Better safe than sorry, I say. Go Non-GMO when possible

You may also find a slew of healthy claims and confusing wording on many of these packages. Most of this is simply marketing trying to convince you of how great the product is. In general, advertising is only needed for things we don’t want or don’t need. My advice: question everything. Too many people accept the marketers’ word for it and continue to buy health sabotaging sugar bombs under the guise of healthy yogurts, cereals, breads, and pastas. Question everything. Look at the ingredients for sugar and questionable oils and additives. If you are unsure, investigate. What you don’t know can hurt you. With time and practice of the tips included here today you will be able to scan just about an foodstuff and be confident as to whether or not it fits into your dietary guidelines. Believe me, it is one of the most empowering things you can do to take your health into your own hands. We may not be able to control how the food is made, but we sure can vote with our dollar and buy the good stuff if we know how to effectively identify the good from the bad.

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