How to Read Food labels
Updated: Mar 15, 2022
The text I receive the most from friends and clients: "Is this healthy?" - followed by a picture of a processed food item that is probably not healthy yet they were tricked by it because it was labeled vegan or low-calorie.
Most people tend to think that eating well is all about looking at calories, protein or carbs. While these play a part, there is so much more to health.
It's important to learn where your food is made, how and with what kind of ingredients. It's important to look beyond words like "low calorie" or "vegan" and really understand what you're feeding your body and how your body reacts to it.
A food product could be labeled "sugar free," but what they are using instead as a sweetener could be even more destructive than sugar itself. Similarly, something can be labeled "vegan" or "fat free" but when you look at the ingredients, they're all highly processed products.
The easiest way to determine if a food item is truly good for you or not is by learning to read nutritional facts and ingredients labels.
Don't let the front fool you
Vegan, Gluten Free, Low Calorie, Fat Free, Low Carb, Sugar Free, Multi-Grain.... it sounds perfect! It must be healthy right? Negative. These are words used by the food industry to make you think that a product is healthy and try to get you to buy.
Don't get me wrong, I am not saying that if something is labeled gluten free then it has to be unhealthy. I am saying that just because it is labeled gluten free, it does not mean that it is automatically healthy. It could be either or.
The food labels in the back will tell you everything you need to know to truly make that decision.
The first section is called the Nutrition Facts. This section will tell you the calories, macronutrients (protein, fat and carbohydrates) as well as some micronutrients (vitamin and minerals) that the food item contains. This section is important but it does not tell you everything and companies will deliberately use this section to mislead you.
The infamous serving size. This is the amount the calories and daily values are based on. The serving size is notorious for being smaller than what we normally would consume so keep that in mind when you check this label.
Calories per serving. This refers to the amount of "energy" released when your body breaks down the food. When we are taking in more "energy" than we are using our body begins to store it for a rainy day in the form of fat. However, not all calories are created equal. For example - think about those 100-calorie cookie packs. They may satisfy your sweet tooth and be considered low calorie, but they contain no vitamins or minerals and are highly-processed. They would be considered "empty" calories or calories that provide very little nutritional value. When food offers low nutritional value it cannot efficiently support your systems. Compare it to a serving size of almonds which would be about 165 calories. If we were judging off calories alone, we would say the 100-cal cookies may be the better choice. But almonds are actually the healthier choice because they are minimally processed and a good source of protein, fiber, healthy fats and other vitamins and minerals. They are considered "nutrient dense," which means they offer more nutrients per calorie.
% Daily Value - This percentage shows how much a nutrient in a serving of food contributes to your total recommended daily intake of that nutrient. This value can help you determine if a serving of food is high or low in a nutrient. The rule of thumb: 5% or less is considered low and 20% or more is considered high. In general, we want to choose foods that are higher in dietary fiber, vitamins, calcium, iron and other minerals; and, we want to choose foods lower in saturated fats, sodium, cholesterol and added sugars.
Macronutrients - here you will find amounts of fat, carbohydrate and protein plus cholesterol and sodium. Discussions on fat and carbohydrates will require their own blog post. But just remember before judging a food by these values, it's important to figure out what the source of fat or carbohydrates is (ingredient list will tell you!).
Total Sugars is the total amount of sugar a food item contains, both artificial and natural. Natural sugars can be found in many plant foods like grains, milk, fruits and vegetables. The WHO sugar intake recommendations do not apply to natural sugars for healthy individuals because no adverse health affects have been linked to the consumption of whole foods containing natural sugars. We shouldn't stress natural sugars too much because our body needs them and they are accompanied by fiber and other nutrients and minerals our body uses to function. Similar to the cookie-almond comparison, you can drink a zero sugar soda or eat an apple - one is clearly better for you despite containing more sugar. Added sugars will tell you how much artificial sugar was added to a product. Some labels will hide the "added sugars" portion completely, which can give the impression that there are no added sugars. Some labels will have 0g of sugar but toxic artificial sweeteners were used instead. To verify if there is truly added sugars or artificial sweeteners, we have to look at the ingredient list. You also want to consider the source - does the ingredient list Raw Honey or High Fructose Corn Syrup? One is clearly better than the other and while we still need to moderate our intake of honey, I rather choose something sweetened with raw honey than corn syrup. High quality, raw honey is still a whole, natural food with vitamins and antioxidants while corn syrup is something highly processed in a lab with no nutritional value.
Micronutrients - vitamins and minerals such as vitamin C, calcium and iron. This can also be misleading if we don't check the ingredient list because it could be that they artificially fortified a food item with synthetic vitamins and minerals to make it appear healthy. Companies will add artificial vitamins to an item because it may yield more sales. Synthetic vitamins and minerals do not interact or behave in the body as real vitamins and minerals from real food do.
Study the Ingredient List
This list is going to tell you what is in your food.
Ingredients are listed by quantity - from the highest to lowest amount. This means the first ingredient is what the company used the most of.
If the first three ingredients contain refined grains, a type of sugar or sweetener, a hydrogenated or inflammatory oil, or an artificial ingredient like a preservative, filler or dye, then we can assume the product is unhealthy.
Try choosing items that have whole foods listed. Whole foods would be represented by listing real food names - Oranges, Almonds, Oats, Chickpeas. If you have trouble recognizing the words, chances are it is artificial. A long ingredient list is another indicator that the food is highly processed and filled with junk.
Artificial and "Natural" Additives
Artificial and natural flavors...we see these pop up everywhere on all sorts of labels. They're vague for a reason. It raises the question, why do they need to or want to hide it under a blanket term?
Both natural and artificial flavors are made in laboratories, the key difference is that artificial flavors come from petroleum and other inedible substances or raw materials like paper pulp, while "natural flavor" can refer to anything that is derived from a natural (plant or animal matter) source.
The same is true of natural and artificial additives. For example, commercial lecithin - a type of emulsifier - is considered a natural additive because it is derived from soybeans and corn.
The word "natural" gives the impression that it is from nature, whole, healthy. However, once ingredients are structurally and chemically altered and processed in labs - they stop interacting in our bodies as nature really intended them to. Consuming lecithin will not have the same effect as consuming corn.
Often, we feel the negative effects of additives in the form of gut issues, acne, and even hyperactivity in children. (1) Also, keep in mind that the ingredients used to derive these additives from will be the cheapest and lowest quality that the company can get their hands on. Really, there is no telling what was added into your food under the guise of "natural" or artificial flavoring.
Many will argue - if it wasn't safe, it wouldn't be in our food.
The FDA is supposed to determine what amount of additives are "safe" to include in food or what amount is "safe" for us to consume daily, right? Even if that is the case for some ingredients, what happens when all the foods we consume throughout the day contain all kinds of different additives and we're just continuously piling them on with very little monitoring?
Thanks to the GRAS laws, companies can determine on their own (performing their own research) that what they're adding to their food product is safe. These companies then have no legal obligation to report their findings to the FDA. (2)
Similarly, the organization responsible for the safety of most natural and artificial flavors isn't part of the U.S. Government but rather a private food industry trade group - the Flavor and Extract Manufacturers Association. The flavor industry basically has a system of self-policing. (3)
The largely industry-run system for evaluating [the safety of] flavors is "fundamentally problematic because it's so opaque." said Erik Olson, the Natural Resources Defense Council's senior strategic director for health and food. "It's a black box."
Real Life Example
Let's observe a real-life food label. We will call them Company X. This product is advertised as a healthy snack for energy and nutrition. They claim it to be high in protein and a good source of fiber. Company X will try to sell this product and other similar products to you as a healthy weight loss supplement or a meal replacement.
Glancing at the Nutrition Facts - we can note that it's very low in calories, low in fat, cholesterol-free, sugar-free, low in carbs, high in sodium and high in iron. At first glance, despite the sodium, one would think this may be healthy.
Let's move on to the ingredients. The first (and most abundant) ingredient is processed soy. Minimally processed, high-quality soy (such as tofu, edamame and tempeh) is rich in nutrients and is linked to various health benefits. However, not all soy products are created equally. The more processed a soy food is, the worse it is for our health.
The second most abundant ingredient is maltodextrin. Maltodextrin is a white powder made from corn, rice, potato starch or wheat. Even though it is made from plants, it is highly processed. It is used as a cheap filler - it is added to your food to make it appear like there is more product. It is also used to increase shelf life. Maltodextrin can spike your blood sugar, suppress the growth of probiotics and affect your gut bacteria in a way that makes you more susceptible to disease. (4,5)
The third ingredient is polydextrose powder. By the -ose suffix we can conclude it is a form of sugar. It is often used as a sugar replacement in sugar free, low-fat/low-calorie products. There is mixed information out there on how polyxdetrose affects the body. However, keep in mind that at the end of the day, it is a highly processed product made in a lab out of cheap ingredients.
Then you have artificial and natural flavors followed by another slew of preservatives and fillers. Besides the "Dried Chive Flakes" there is no real food here. Take note that the chives are the last ingredient. The ingredient closest to a whole food is the least abundant.
Without seeing the front of the packaging, you can't even guess what this product is or would taste like. This is actually supposed to be a chicken and vegetables soup... with zero chicken or vegetables. If I were to make a chicken soup from scratch with real vegetables - the meal would contain more calories and fat than this product. Yet, that doesn't mean this product is better for you than a real chicken soup.
The fiber, protein and amount of minerals they tout is 100% artificially sourced.
Would you lose weight by replacing real food with this? Absolutely. Will you wreck your health while doing it? Most definitely.
Reading food labels is crucial to your wellness journey. Learning to recognize real food versus artificial food is necessary in order to make better food decisions.
If you're struggling to do this on your own, contact us and we would be happy to set up a personalized education session.
It's important to note that a perfect diet does not exist and, unfortunately, in our food environment it is almost impossible to avoid artificial ingredients, highly-processed food and additives 100% of the time. However, by being aware and making a conscious effort to chose better foods most of the time, we can significantly improve our health.