Inside Scoop: Our best tips on how to read food labels for healthy shopping and healthy eating!
Before we started this whole nutrition game, food labels were like reading braille. We’d flip the back of the package and immediately look at the numbers associated with ‘calories per serving’, eyes glazed over the other numbers thinking, yeah… low cal, it must be healthy.
We believed manufacturers promises of NATURAL, GLUTEN-FREE, VEGAN, WHOLE GRAINS, NO PRESERVATIVES, SUGAR-FREE, FAT-FREE, LOW CALORIES….
We just didn’t know how deceptive some companies can be. They reel us in with their pretty packages because they know that for a lot of us, learning labels, specific ingredients and really understanding whether or not something is actually healthy or good for you can be tricky.
But having nutrition experts at your fingertips (join our NN Community if you have any nutrition questions that you would like answered) can definitely help clear up some of the label confusion out there.
How to read food labels 101: What are processed foods and additives?
Simply put, processed foods are any type of food that has gone through processing and packaging before you can purchase it. If you purchase a packaged food, it’s most likely processed in some way or another. Even foods that are generally recognized as whole (rice, oil, rolled oats, flour etc.) still have to go through some form of processing in order for consumers to make the purchase. But, just because something is processed or packaged, doesn’t mean it’s unhealthy.
However, some highly processed foods (think big brands) can contain additives and chemicals that preserve freshness and allow for shelf stability. They often lack the nutrients that our bodies need to function properly and can add stress to our detoxifying organs. Since a lot of the highly processed products contain chemicals that are non-foods, our bodies need to work extra hard to eliminate these substances.
But they add vitamins and minerals back into foods, so that’s healthy, right?
If vitamins and minerals have to be added into foods, then our question is, what’s the quality of that food in the first place? Take bread, for example, a sprouted or fermented whole grain loaf contains plenty of vitamins and minerals. You shouldn’t have to worry whether or not you’re getting enough nutrients when you eat it. But white bread, and even some brands of whole wheat, have to add vitamins and minerals because nearly every nutrient has been taken away in the processing and manufacturing process.
Here’s what a whole grain should look like:
With white bread/ flour, the germ and bran are stripped and what’s left is the endosperm. So, you can see why they may need to add some nutrients back in. Best bet, get it whole, get it sourced, know your bread. The history of wheat processing is actually very interesting, but a different topic altogether. If you want to learn more check out our Ultimate Guide For Choosing Healthy Bread article.
LET’S DIVE INTO A LABEL EXAMPLE:
KELLOGS NUTRI GRAIN FRUIT & OAT HARVEST BARS
Kellogg’s Nutri Grain is an incredibly popular brand. It’s actually a brand that we might even consider to be on the ‘healthier’ side of things. They have 100 kcal snacks, high fibre cereal, entire breakfasts that you can drink to help you lose weight (yes, it’s a thing), and they truly have a team of marketing gurus. We know you’ve probably bought some Special K, or have even purchased their granola bars in hopes for healthier options. We know because we have too!
And yes, they’re marketing geniuses, because at first look the bar looks healthy, here’s what the front of the label says:
Real Fruit, Whole Grains, Protein, Oats, 5 grams of Fiber, Low Sodium…what more could you want? The box is going home with you!
Sorry, wait a second, did you just say 40 ingredients?
GRANOLA CRUST: WHOLE GRAIN OATS, SUGAR, PALM OIL WITH TBHQ FOR FRESHNESS, ENRICHED FLOUR (WHEAT FLOUR, NIACIN, REDUCED IRON, VIATMIN B1 [THIAMIN MONONITRATE], VITAMIN B2 [RIBOFLAVIN], FOLIC ACID), CORN SYRUP, OAT FIBER, ISOLATED SOY PROTEIN, MALTODEXTRIN, ACACIA GUM, GLYCERIN, CELLULOSE, WHEAT GLUTEN, MOLASSES, NATURAL FLAVORS, LEAVENING (BAKING SODA, SODIUM ACID PYROPHOSPHATE), SALT, SOY LECITHIN, BHT (PRESERVATIVE), PEANUT FLOUR, NONFAT MILK. FILLING: INVERT SUGAR, CORN SYRUP, STRAWBERRY PUREE CONCENTRATE, GLYCERIN, SUGAR, MODIFIED CORN STARCH, SODIUM ALGINATE, CITRIC ACID, DICALCIUM PHOSPHATE, METHYLCELLULOSE, NATURAL AND ARTIFICIAL FLAVOR, CARAMEL COLOR, MALIC ACID, RED 40.
Where’s the fruit at?
Okay, after 5 minutes of trying to wrap our head around how something so simple contains so many ingredients, we found strawberry puree concentrate somewhere towards the end of the list.
And…how many different kinds of sugar?
We spotted 8 and probably missed something!
And with this ingredient list, we’re just scratching the surface, we’re struggling to find even 5 healthy ingredients that are part of this bar.
This doesn’t mean you can’t ever have processed food. A healthy diet isn’t necessarily 100% ‘clean’ all the time. It’s about balance, examining how much processed food is in your diet, and what kind of processed foods you’re buying. Are we buying for convenience? Sale? Kids? Take our Healthy Cupboards Quiz here to find out if your pantry needs a little TLC.
Besides just looking at the ingredient list, there are some other ways that you can ensure what’s getting into that check out lane is beneficial for your belly, your health and your family.
How to read food labels 101: Our top 5 tips
1) BE WARY OF FOODS LABELS THAT MAKE HEALTH CLAIMS
The front of the package is designed to sell you the product. It’s an advertising billboard and can be VERY deceiving. Words like ‘natural’, ‘whole grains’, ‘fresh’, ‘fat free’, ‘gluten free’ and ‘low fat’, are often used to entice you to buy, and sometimes you need to dig deeper to find out more. Crazy, we know!
Be suspicious and dig deeper for the facts. Food companies can promote benefits on the front of the package that are not necessarily true. For example, a food can contain MSG disguised under other names (there are more than 40!), but the packaging can claim “No MSG”.
2) CHECK THE FULL INGREDIENT LIST
Your first and most important reference is the ingredient list.
Ingredients are always listed on the label from the highest concentration to the lowest, so if sugar, white flour or another refined ingredient is the first on the list then you can know to be careful. You generally want to choose foods with the least ingredients possible and words that you recognize.
Keeping it simple:
- Ingredients first
- Watch out for more than a few ingredients you don’t understand or can’t pronounce.
- Watch out for ingredients that have strange abbreviations or sound like they came from a lab (chances are they probably did).
- Watch out for artificial colours …… since when is a colour a food?
- It’s probably filled with preservatives and artificial ingredients if it can sit on your counter for more than a few days without going stale (think muffins, bagels, bread etc.)
3) ASK YOURSELF IF THE INGREDIENT LIST CONTAINS REAL FOOD
When looking at a food label or product always ask yourself if it contains real foods (example: are there only 1-5 ingredients that you actually recognize as food), or does it contain food-like substances (for example, ‘tartrazine’ is an artificial colour).
It’s also important to look at the sugar and sodium content. Fat can be replaced with sugar, salt adds flavour, and the sodium content can be very high in processed foods since salt is used as a way to preserve foods.
4) KNOW WHEN THE NUTRITION FACT LABEL IS IMPORTANT
On the ‘Nutrition Fact Label’, there are three areas you should be looking at: serving size, sugar and trans fats. It’s ok if some foods have natural sugars added, but how much does that equate to for the serving size? It’s important to know how to differentiate between added sugars and natural sugars.
Ideally, you want a food that is high in fiber, protein, and healthy fats and low in sugar.
And, beware of foods with hidden sugar: Some examples are fruit yogurt, ketchup, sauces, gravy, tomato soup, pasta sauce, salami, peanuts, bread, vitamin water, energy bars, granola, cereals, salad dressings, baked beans. The American Heart Association recommends no more than 6 teaspoons of added sugars a day, or 20 grams (women), and 9 teaspoons, or 37 grams a day (men).
5) AVOID STRESSING ABOUT CALORIE CONTENT
Calorie content does not equate to the quality or health benefits of a food. Some very healthy foods may be calorie dense, such as nuts, seeds, nut butters, and avocados. In fact, whole food versions of foods generally have more calories than their processed counterparts. For example, full fat yogurt versus low or 0 fat, whole grain bread versus white bread.
Less calories doesn’t mean better quality, here, nutrients trump calories any day!
WHERE TO START?
This is a lot of information, we know. It took us a while to get the hang of reading labels, and still to this day, we question some of the ingredients that are out there. You don’t have to do it all at once, for example, you may want to eliminate high fructose corn syrup from all packaged foods that you buy. Once that’s in place, move on to the next ingredient you want to eliminate.
It may not be realistic to completely eliminate ALL processed foods these days. However, the more whole foods you can add to your diet, the better. There are almost always healthier versions of what you like.