Reading food labels

Bonus points if you can guess what kind of food this is
Bonus points if you can guess the food

Figuring out what exactly is in your food can be pretty tricky. Food labels are there to help us, but if you’re not used to reading them, they can be more confusing than anything else.

One really important thing to realize before reading a food label is that food companies are not always on your side. Their goal is to make a profit, not necessarily to make sure you get the healthiest food possible.

There has been a push toward healthy food and healthy consumer choices, which means that a lot of companies are trying to market their products to seem as healthy as possible. Some of these products are actually healthy while others, not so much. Looking at a food label with a critical eye can give you a better idea of what is actually in your food.

Ingredient list

When I’m doing my grocery shopping, the first thing I check is the ingredients.

Ingredients are listed in order of proportion, so if the first ingredient is flour, that means that they put more flour in the food than any other one ingredient (which doesn’t necessarily mean that the food is mostly flour). Little confusing, I know.

Sometimes, companies will use different names for the same product. Sucrose, corn sugar, beet sugar, corn syrup and brown rice syrup are all different ways to say the same thing – sugar.

On the flip side, sometimes things that sound scary aren’t really that bad. Alpha-tocopherol is just the scientific name for Vitamin E but manages to sound much more frightening. If there is something on the ingredient list that I don’t recognize, I try to look it up so I know what I’m actually eating.

Nutrient values

Next, I quickly scan the box that tells you how much of each nutrient is in the food. I use this as a quick reference to get an idea of what is in my food but I don’t spend too much time on it.

The first thing I do here is look at is the serving size and make sure it is representative of how much I will actually eat. This part is super important – the amount of nutrients you get from the food changes depending on how much you consume.

Some companies are sneaky with this one. They’ll label a single serving bag of chips as having two servings, or a bottle of soda as having two and a half. No one eats half a single serving bag of chips. When you eat the whole bag, you’re getting double the nutrients listed on the label which you probably won’t realize if you don’t notice the serving size.

After I look at the serving size, I skim through the rest of the label. I pay attention to different things depending on what I want in my diet. Last summer, I had some blood work done and my doctor told me I was mildly anemic. After that, I made sure to check my nutrition labels for iron, in addition to finding ways to increase the bioavailability of the iron.

One part of the label that can be a little deceiving is the percent given on the right side. This is called the Daily Value and while it can be useful, it is important to realize that these numbers are based on a 2000 calorie/day diet.

There is a large amount of variation in the amount of calories each of us needs to eat depending on our size, age, activity level, and if we are trying to gain or lose weight. For this reason, I use the Daily Value percentages as a very rough indicator to determine if a food is high or low in a certain nutrient. For instance, I would pay attention if I see that something has 80% of the Daily Value for saturated fat.

Front of the box

I’m pretty skeptical of foods that make a big deal out of how healthy they are. We know pretty instinctively when food is healthy; broccoli doesn’t have to say that it is “All natural!” for me to know that it’s good for me.

Again, it’s important to remember that the company wants to make a profit off of you. Sometimes, companies take advantage of consumer fears and miseducation about nutrition in order to sell their products. Cholesterol is only found in animal products, but you can find plenty of foods made from plants that are advertising how they are “100% Cholesterol Free!”. Well yes, of course they are. However, this is far from obvious to most people and the cholesterol free option sounds much more convincing.

It’s incredibly frustrating that companies try to pass their foods off as being healthier than they are and this is something consumers really have to be aware of. If you want to eat your favorite cereal because it tastes awesome, then thats great! But if you’re eating it because the company is portraying it as being healthier than it really is, then I think that’s a problem. I’m not saying that consumers should always pick the healthiest option available, but they should be able make informed decisions about their food.

Personally, I think that one of the most useful ways to use nutrition labels is to compare two products. If I’m debating between two types of yogurt, I’ll pull them both off the shelf and take a look at the back to see which one has a nutrient profile that better fits what I’m looking for.

Nutrition labels are a useful tool but I’m careful not to become too fixated on the numbers – it is very easy to fall into the trap of always looking for a healthier option and personally, that’s not how I want to live my life.

So moral of the story: nutrition labels can be useful tools but they are also flawed. Try to see through some of the tricks that manufacturers use. Use nutrition labels to be more aware of what is in your food, but remember that they have their limitations and don’t let them dictate how you eat.

Note: Right after I posted this, I found an awesome article from The Kitchn on proposed changes to the nutrition label. I’m a fan, especially of the push to make serving sizes more accurate and the inclusion of added sugars to the label.


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