Reading Food Labels- A Necessity or a Nuisance?
Ever been to the supermarket and picked up an “organic”, “healthy”, “whole” product like a box of crackers or cereal?
So you are all happy, you turn the box around to look for the food label and yes…only 7% fat- great, only 1% sugar- great, no cholesterol- great. And then you see the ingredient list with a lot of stuff you have never heard about and don’t even know what it is…and then you check the serving size..and in the end the product is not even close to what you had hoped for!
RULE #1: DON’T EAT WHAT YOU DON’T KNOW AND CAN’T EVEN PRONOUNCE
RULE #2: IF IT WAS MADE IN A LAB IT WILL TAKE A LAB TO EAT IT .. SO DON’T EAT IT
RULE #3: NEVER EVER BELIEVE ANYTHING ON THE FRONT OF THE PACKAGE..EVER!
RULE #4: ALWAYS READ THE NUTRITION FACTS LABEL AND INGREDIENTS
Why do you think the food labels are densely packed with information written in small fonts? It is because they are meant to be overwhelming and confusing, causing most consumers to ignore the label entirely. It makes it much easier for companies to sneak bad stuff into their products and fool consumers with often false claims and flashy words on the front of the box. This brings us back to rule #3 and rule #4.
NEVER EVER BELIEVE ANYTHING ON THE FRONT OF THE PACKAGE..EVER!
ALWAYS READ THE NUTRITION FACTS LABEL AND INGREDIENTS
What we find on nutrition facts labels is a fixation on the AMOUNT of individual VITAMINS, MINERALS, FATTY ACIDS, CALORIES etc.
This obsession with exact numbers originates from the simple fact that people want to be healthy and feel good and we are taught that our health partially depends on getting precisely the right amount of nutrients into our bodies.
There is no direct relationship between the amount of nutrients we eat and the amount of nutrients that actually will reach the main site of action in the body. Firstly, BIOAVAILABILITY will limit the amount that is biologically available for our bodies (I.e. just because there is calcium in a food doesn’t necessarily mean it can be absorbed and used by our bodies). Secondly, our bodies seem to only absorb the right amount of nutrients that we NEED at that particular moment. For example, the amount of beta carotene in carrots can vary about four- fold. On the other end, the absorption rate of beta carotene across the intestinal wall can also vary by a 100 percent.
The bottom line is that we cannot know precisely how much of a particular nutrient is actually available to our bodies at any given point of time, or how much our bodies actually need. Our bodies do not need any conscious intervention in this process…all we need to do is provide abundant nutrients by eating whole plant- based foods. It’s that simple…..
So, now back to the question: what do I look for on nutrition facts labels??
First of all, I am lucky not having to read through lots of labels, we are eating a whole food based diet- very few labels there…I just make sure to choose non GMO produce and organic if necessary – read more on one of my latest posts “organic or non organic, that’s the question”). Fresh fruits, vegetables and legumes make up the biggest part of our grocery list. Whole grains don’t include anything else- oats are just plain oats, brown rice is just rice- nevertheless double check that nothing else was added and sneaked in (especially look for the part that says “non GMO”).
If I do need to read the labels more thoroughly, e.g. when buying canned or packaged foods (plant based milks, plant based yogurts, dried fruits, breakfast flakes, tomato sauce etc) I always look at the order of the listed ingredients. They must be listed in descending order by weight, including added water, so the ingredient listed first is present in the largest quantity.
Take a look at what types of SUGARS are in the product. Don’t pay attention to the amount
in grams of “total carbs” or “total sugars” on the nutrition label. You’re only interested in what kind of carbs or sugars are in the product. Natural sources of sugars from fresh fruit are ok but avoid added and refined sugars including evaporated cane juice, high fructose corn syrup, corn syrup, sugar, brown rice syrup, dehydrated honey, molasses, etc. If you find any of the added/refined sugars mentioned above in the first 5 ingredients on the ingredient list, then this product contains a high amount of unhealthy sugars and should be avoided.
Choose products that contain WHOLE GRAINS. It must say these exact words to be considered a whole grain product – “whole” as in whole wheat, “rolled” as in rolled oats, “stone-ground” or “cracked”. If it says anything other than these exact words such as “wheat flour”, “enriched wheat flour”, etc. then it’s NOT whole grain.
Avoid foods with high SODIUM content. Here is a simple trick to help you stay clear of too much sodium: keep the calories per serving to sodium ratio at 1:1 or lower. So if you are looking at a product that contains 100 calories per serving then it should have 100 mg or less of sodium per serving.
Check the ingredient list for BAD FATS. Avoid saturated vegetable (and of course animal) fats (coconut oil, cocoa butter, palm oil, palm kernel oil), and man-made saturated fats (margarine, shortening).
Look in the ingredients for the term “partially hydrogenated” oils which are the same as trans fat and you should put these products back on the shelf.
I am skipping cholesterol here, because it is only found in animal products and not in a plant- based diet.
Finding the right foods for you sounds like a lot of work, tell your family to call in a search and rescue , if you haven’t come back from your shopping tour after 6 hrs (once you have figured out which products and brands are healthy it is actually pretty easy to go shopping).
As long as you eat a large variety of whole, plant- based foods your body will get all the nutrients it needs…even the ones that aren’t listed on the packages. A whole orchestra of different nutrients playing and working with your body in total harmony.