Reading Labels 101

One of the first things I teach my clients, (at all ages!) is how to read food labels. This simple practice is so important when you are trying to buy healthy, packaged foods at the grocery store. Of course, in a perfect world ALL our food would be homemade, but welcome to reality! And there is certainly a safe place in our diets for packaged food, provided we do our homework and make sure the ingredients are safe to put into our bodies. Here are my top five tips for when you head to the grocery store, or what I refer to as Reading Labels 101.

  1. Ignore EVERYTHING written on the front and back of the box. They can pretty much claim whatever they like, such as “healthy grains” or “part of a nutritious breakfast” (I just love that one–what does it even mean?). Go right to the Nutrition Facts listed on the side of the box: check for Protein, Sugar, and Fiber. Ideally, Protein and Fiber should be at least 3 grams for crackers, cereals, granola bars, bread, etc. Sugar content should be less than 10 g. Also check the serving size–does anyone really wrap up half a brownie to eat tomorrow? Maybe you will, but don’t eat the entire treat “by accident” thinking it’s a single serving.
  2. The first ingredient is always the biggest. So when the first ingredient on that box of cereal which claims to be “part of a nutritious breakfast” is Sugar, you can put it back on the shelf and try again. Also notice when the cereal then lists Corn Syrup, Cane Juice, Dextrose, Maltose, Sucrose, High Fructose Corn Syrup, or Galactose (not making this up!) further down the ingredient list. Those are simply other names for sugar, and intended to trick you…don’t let them!
  3. Do NOT buy anything containing containing Partially Hydrogenated Oils (a fancy term for Trans Fats) or High Fructose Corn Syrup (a chemically modified form of sugar). They are both toxic to your body and cause inflammation and an assortment of GI issues. An easy trick I teach people is that if you cannot buy an ingredient in the store, then do NOT eat it! You will not have much luck trying to find Partially Hydrogenated Cottonseed Oil on the shelf of your local market. Only in the Chemistry lab…
  4. Avoid foods with long ingredient lists, which require a magnifying glass to read, and words you cannot pronounce. Why should a “protein bar” contain 15 lines of ingredients with 18 letter words on it? If you cannot spell the ingredients, don’t eat them. An Apple Pie Larabar contains dates, almonds, apples, walnuts, raisins, and cinnamon. Now that is a bar I can live with! Sorry Clif bars….
  5. Fiber is your friend. Always choose WHOLE grains. Wheat flour means nothing, and may even be refined white flour with beige food coloring…no joke. Always choose brands with whole wheat flour, brown rice, barley, millet, spelt, and other ancient whole grains when choosing a pasta, wrap, bread, waffle, or cracker. Fiber content should be at least 3g. in order to help our digestion and keep your GI tract running smoothly. I call fiber your stomach’s “broom” and you want to give it a daily sweep!

Don’t make yourself crazy at the grocery store spending hours inspecting every ingredient and nutrient on the food label of your husband’s favorite spaghetti. Just follow my tips and do your best. Calories and “net carbs” are deceiving too because some very healthy foods may be high in calories (cue in nuts or avocados) or may be high in carbs (such as sweet potatoes or brown rice), but also loaded with vitamins and fiber. Focus more on eating simple, clean foods with “real” ingredients than how many calories they contain. For example, shouldn’t a jar of peanut butter contain peanuts, a little salt, and maybe a little sugar? Some brands contain hydrogenated soybean oil, corn syrup solids, ferric orthophosphate (?), and my kids’ personal favorite…zinc oxide! Isn’t that sunblock? What next? Happy shopping, and let me know how you do with your label reading.

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