WHERE TO START WITH FOOD LABELS?
- Look past the flashy health claims on the front of a package. These health claims include “natural”, “premium”, or “low-calorie”. That is marketing at its best and it is meant to catch our eye and get us to buy.
- Skip over the nutrition facts for now. These are the calories, grams of fat, grams of protein, etc. We will revisit this section later.
- Bring your attention to the INGREDIENTS LIST. This section is where you will find the information you need to decide whether you are looking at real food or at a conglomerate of refined ingredients, processed vegetable oils, and additives.
Here are some simple tips to answer that question:
1. How long is the ingredients list? Generally, longer lists indicate a higher level of processing. However, this isn’t always the case so getting into the habit of reading all the ingredients is very important.
2. What ingredients are listed first? These are the ingredients found in the highest quantity.
3. What exactly are the ingredients? Do you recognize them?
4. If you prepared this meal at home, would you include the same ingredients that are listed in the food label?
5. A VERY TELLING PARAMETER: Would you buy any of the ingredients by itself? Do you normally eat those ingredients or use them in your cooking? If you don’t have some of those single ingredients at home or if you don’t know where you would find them (e.g. yellow #5, partially hydrogenated lard, BHT) this is a telling sign that you are looking at a product of the food industry and not a product of nature.
6. Can you picture how the ingredients listed on the package come together to make a product? Often times, I can’t! That is another sign that you are looking at a manufactured product and not real food.
For example, can you tell what these food items are?
Label A - Ingredients: wheat flour, degerminated yellow corn meal, sugar, animal shortening (contains one or more of the following: lard, hydrogenated lard, partially hydrogenated lard), contains less than 2% of each of the following: baking soda, sodium acid pyrophosphate, salt, monocalcium phosphate.
Label B - Ingredients: sugar, corn flour, wheat flour, whole grain oat flour, oat fiber, soluble corn fiber, contains 2% or less of partially hydrogenated vegetable oil (coconut soybean and/or cottonseed), salt, red 40, natural flavor, blue 2, turmeric color, yellow 6, annatto color, blue 1, BHT for freshness.
See answer key at the bottom of the post!
THINGS TO CONSIDER WHEN READING THE INGREDIENTS LIST
- Food companies can either add a single kind of SWEETENER in a large quantity (thus, this sweetener would be listed first as an ingredient) OR they can strategically include smaller amounts of multiple sweeteners, so they don’t have to list them first in the list. Smart and sneaky!
- Hydrogenated and partially hydrogenated fats are TRANS FATS. Food companies don’t have to report trans fats in the nutrition facts unless they reach 0.5g. This means a product can say “0 g of trans fats” but still contain some trans fats. Research tells us there isn’t a safe amount of trans fats for human consumption. So how do you figure out if something actually contains trans fats? By using the ingredients list as your guide and avoiding foods with hydrogenated and partially hydrogenated fats (aka trans fats).
- Grains that read as “refined, enriched, or white” are REFINED GRAINS. This means the grain has been processed and lacks the fiber, minerals, and fatty acids that can be found in a whole grain. Look for WHOLE GRAINS in the ingredient list. For example, you can find whole wheat, whole oats, or whole corn in ingredient lists.
- Ultra-processed foods also contain ADDITIVES to make them more shelf-stable, tasty, and appealing to our senses. I am referring to artificial colors, artificial sweeteners, preservatives (nitrites, nitrates, sulfites, BHS, BHT, EDTA), and flavor enhancers such as MSG (monosodium glutamate).
INSIGHTFUL INFORMATION FROM THE NUTRITION FACTS SECTION
Number of servings per container: it is a good practice to check the number of servings in a given package or drink. Canned or bottled drinks in particular usually contain more than one serving. When looking at the nutritional breakdown you would want to account for the number of servings.
For example, a 20-ounce bottle of Mountain Dew contains 2.5 servings (of 8 ounces). Without looking at the label it is easy to think the bottle contains just one serving. In the case of Mountain Dew this is relevant for sugar content. One 8-ounce serving contains 31g of added sugars. The bottle (with 2.5 servings) contains 77g of added sugar. The upper limits for daily consumptions of added sugars (established by the American Heart Association) are 24g for adult women and 36g for adult men. A single serving of Mountain Dew is above the threshold for women and almost at the threshold for men. Drinking a whole bottle means consuming 3X the upper limit for women and 2X the upper limit for men.
This is why reading nutrition labels can be so powerful and transformative. I suggest you review flavored yogurt labels at the store; that is another common food that contains a large amount of added sugars!
Fat breakdown: as mentioned above, keep an eye on trans fats and remember 0g of trans fats actually means anywhere between 0 and 0.49g.
Fiber check: when looking at a grain-based product, less than 3g of fiber usually means the grain has been refined. How does this work? The outer coating (the husk) and the inner portion (the germ) have been removed. This leaves just one part of the seed intact, the endosperm, which is made of starch. Starch is a complex carbohydrate, yet it quickly breaks down and converts to sugar in our body. For this reason, starchy foods raise blood glucose levels rapidly and sharply.
Grams of added sugar: as mentioned above, some common foods have large amounts of added sugars. The labeling system is changing so that manufacturers have to disclose which sugars are naturally occurring in the food (for example the sugar in apple slices) and which ones have been added to the food (for example, the added sugar in soft drinks and flavored yogurts discussed above).
On the topic of added sugars, I recommend minimizing or completely avoiding artificial sweeteners. While these sweeteners may not spike blood sugar levels in the same way that real sugar does, consuming artificial sweeteners perpetuates our sweet tooth and the craving for sweet, processed foods that don’t add valuable nutrition to our plates. Ongoing research is evaluating the possible effects of artificial sweeteners in the human body. For those with digestive disorders such as Irritable Bowel Syndrome, some artificial sweeteners may exacerbate symptoms.
RECAP OF KEY POINTS
- Reading nutrition labels is a key skill for healthy eating. It sets you up for successfully choosing whole, real, nutrient dense foods for you and your family.
- The ingredients list is the real deal, the revealing “tell-all” information to focus on.
- Foods made with real ingredients have labels that tend to:
*Contain ingredients you recognize
*Contain ingredients you buy and consume on a regular basis
*Contain the same ingredients you would utilize to make that same food at home
- A single package or bottle may contain more than one serving.
- Trans fats are listed as “0 grams” if they are below the 0.5g threshold. Use the ingredient list to identify the presence of trans fats and look for “hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oils/fats”.
- The amount of fiber is reflective of the level of processing in a grain product. Look for foods that contain 3 or more grams of fiber.
- The amount of sugar in a food may be naturally occurring sugar or added sugar. Most labels nowadays will distinguish between the two.
Answer key: Label A, corn muffin mix. Label B, Froot Loops.
LET’S GET ADVENTUROUS THIS WEEKS WITH SEASONAL VEGETABLES! I HOPE YOU GIVE THESE RECIPES A GO!
*Kohlrabi Baked Fries
*Spicy Chicken and Veggies Collard Wraps
*Salmon, Edamame, Endive Salad
*Peanut Thai Zucchini Noodles
NUTRITION FUN FOR THE KIDDOS
From Rutabaga Curriculum
*Let’s do a scavenger hunt! This can be done outdoors, in the kitchen, or using books/online resources. Find: a Brassica plant, a pollinator, a whole grain, an herb, a decomposer.
*Can you name all 6 parts of a plant and find an example for each part? (hint: the parts of a plant include seed, stem, root, leaves, fruit, flower).