Reading food labels is a tricky art form, in my opinion. It has become a much talked about topic in the health world as of late. In the past, most people bought food based on what they liked and what the front of the package said. Life was so much easier then, wasn’t it? Now, there are so many more food options out there to choose from, and to make it more complicated, there are also so many more foods to avoid. How do you navigate through the never-ending shelves at the grocery store without adding an hour to your shopping trip, and without losing your mind? There’s plenty you can do! Last month, I did a post on an app called Shop Well, which scans food labels to find foods to fit your dietary needs. It is a great app, and you can check out the post here. But if you don’t want to be bothered with an app, I understand, because it can be a little time-consuming. So here are some easy tips to help you choose wisely at the grocery store.
Tip #1 – Read front and back.
Food companies have gotten very sneaky with how they market their foods. On the front of the label, they put enticing words and phrases to make you think their product is healthy. I’ve seen things like, “Now with added vitamin D!”, “Made with whole grains,” and “Heart healthy.” Those all sound like good things, right? But that food with added vitamin D might be full of sugar and white flour. The bread “made with whole grains” could just have a small amount of whole grains in it, and the rest could be made with refined flour. Foods labeled “heart healthy” might not be as healthy as they sound. It’s important to look past the pseudo-healthy phrases on the front, and also read the back of labels. On the back is where you will find all of the nutrition information and a full list of ingredients. You will learn so much more about a food from the back of the label than the front, so be sure to turn that package around. For example, take these new Wheat Thins “made with organic flour.” They scrawl that claim right across the front, and it sounds like a good thing, right? But turn that label around and look at the ingredients list and you discover that these are made with organic wheat flour, which is still a refined grain. Plus, they have three different types of added sugar.
Tip #2 – Check the nutrition information
Now that you have turned the label around to read the back, it’s time to look at the nutrition information for the food. You might be tempted to look at the calorie count in the food and make your decision just based on that. The calories in a food should be only one aspect you look at when deciding if you want to put it in your body. The nutrition information also lists the fat, sugar, carbs, protein, sodium, and fiber in a food. These are all important things to look at. Fat is okay, but keep the amount in check, and make sure you limit saturated fats and avoid trans fats. You definitely want to keep the sugar to the lowest number you can. There is sugar hiding in so many processed foods these days, including salad dressings, crackers, cereals, and other condiments. Higher amounts of protein and fiber are good. Lower amounts of sodium are important too. It all depends on your specific dietary needs. This next example is for Cascadian Farms Organic Crunchy Toasted Coconut Granola Bars. In the nutrition panel, we see that these bars have 3 grams of fiber, which is good, but look at the 9 grams of sugar! And the ingredients list reveal three types of added sugar. So many people think the word “organic” means healthy. I hope you realize that it does not.
Tip #3 – Don’t skip the ingredients list.
Many people just read the nutrition information and call it a day…big mistake. The ingredients list is where the real info can be found. For example, the nutrition info may tell you that there are 0 grams of trans fats in a food, but if you look at the ingredients list and see “partially-hydrogenated oil,” then there are trans fats in the food. How can this be? Companies are allowed to put in .5 grams of trans fats and list it as 0. So you would never know it’s there unless you know what to look for on the ingredients list. Take these Teddy Grahams. The front of the label tells us they have no trans fats. But when we look at the ingredients list, what do we see? Partially hydrogenated cottonseed oil, aka trans fat. Another thing to look for in the ingredients list is sugar in any form. First of all, companies have gotten savvy at making sugar sound fancy…organic cane syrup, I’m looking at you. Sugar is sugar, no matter what. Anything that ends in –ose is sugar. You also want to notice where on the list sugar is listed. The first few ingredients are what the food is mostly made up of, so try to avoid products with sugar listed earlier in the list. These Teddy Grahams have sugar, high fructose corn syrup, and maltodextrin listed in the ingredients—all sugar. We all know it’s important to eat whole grains, but you must read carefully. You must see the word “whole” before a grain. Something made out of “wheat” does not mean it is a whole grain. It must say “whole wheat.” And then you need to look to see if it’s made of 100% whole wheat, or if it is also made of other grains, like enriched flour. Again, the higher up on the list you see the whole grains, the more the food contains. These Teddy Grahams say they are “made with whole grains,” but the first ingredient is enriched flour. The whole grain doesn’t appear until the fourth ingredient. So these are made with mostly refined grains and a little bit of whole grains.
It is possible to shop healthy without it feeling like a chore. The more you read labels, the easier it becomes. I will be testing out other label-reading apps in the future if you want the tech help, so be sure to look for those. In the meantime, stay educated and practice choosing the right foods for you and your family.
Are you a label reader? What tips do you have to share?