All right, I realize that just the title is enough to turn you off here, but bear with me because I promise this will get more exciting as we go along.
And if we find that’s not the case I can always throw a crazy cat video up in here.
Let me start by making a confession. I have become a certified label-reading freak of nature. Seriously, you should the looks I get from people in the grocery store, and if I forget my glasses I don’t go in the store at all.
It’s good and bad at the same time.
When I first started reading labels it took me nearly 3 hours to make my way through the shopping list.
I’ve gotten much better nowadays.
Why It’s Important to Read Nutrition Labels
For me, it’s all about the added sugar. I take a look at the fat content and trans-fats, and also the sodium, but I believe that added sugar in our diets is what’s making Americans overweight and unhealthy.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves, let’s take them one by one so we can be clear.
FAT: I’m not too concerned with the saturated fat content. These types of fats, found in meats and whole dairy products, were long thought to be a key driver in heart disease, but recent studies have proved that to be completely untrue. Monounsaturated fats are also okay with me, so if the majority of fat comes from these sources then I’m okay with it.
It’s the trans-fat content that you should be aware of, because there is a well proven link between trans-fats and heart disease. It also increases inflammation in the body, and studies have stated there is no safe level to consume and no health benefit at all, so steer clear!
Note: manufacturers are required to include items on the label that exceed 0.5g. So please be aware that even though the label says zero trans-fat, there still could be a bit floating around in there. In this case you need to read the ingredient list and look for things like partially hydrogenated oil or shortening.
SODIUM: This is a touchy one, because I believe we all eat too much salt and I try to cut my sodium wherever I can. I very rarely use a salt shaker except when cooking and always check sodium levels of packaged products.
How much is too much depends on each person. The Recommended Daily Allowance is 2300 milligrams for a normal healthy adult, and if you have high blood pressure it goes down to 1500 milligrams.
Please remember that when you see any amount of fat or sodium or anything else on a label, that number is PER SERVING – so check the serving size or number of servings in case you eat the whole package!
FIBER: Generally speaking, fiber is good for you, so you’d automatically think the more, the better. I’m skeptical, however, of foods that really don’t have fiber, like yogurt, or even water, that somehow magically contain fiber as some sort of additive. Where does that come from??
Look for 2 or 3 grams per serving as a general guideline.
SUGARS: Ah, my all-time favorite! And every bit as tricky as it always is. The sugar number on a food label doesn’t differentiate between naturally occurring sugars like fructose. It lumps all sugar together and forces you to read the ingredient list if you’re concerned about the breakdown, like I am.
Remember that sugar has plenty of aliases it goes by, you can see a huge list here. Look for words like palm sugar, date sugar, any type of sweeteners, and the biggest and worst of all, High Fructose Corn Syrup. Also, anything that ends in “OSE” is pretty guaranteed to be sugar.
PRO TIP: The more people I talk to, the more I realize that not many people realize what I’m about to tell you. Real Inside Baseball stuff here…
The ingredients on a food label are listed from highest to lowest of the amount contained in the food. In other words, they are in order of volume. So if you see any sugars near the top of the ingredient list, put it back on the shelf. And be aware that manufacturers sometimes break up sugar into different components, like high fructose corn syrup, dextrose, etc, so if you see more than one type of sugar listed you may want to reconsider.
Vitamins – Minerals: I glance at these as well as a rough guide, but honestly, I’m not counting on getting my daily requirement of vitamins and minerals from anything in a box or package. I rely on fresh fruits and vegetables to get that job done.
Odd and Ends: There are other things on the label that you should be aware of – such as the presence of whole grains, which can be beneficial for some people, but cause terrible problems for others. If you see the word “Enriched” anywhere in the ingredients list when referring to whole grains, you can bet that the grain has been modified from its original state, more than likely to remove bran or germ, and thus less healthy for you.
I realize that reading food labels, especially when you’re tired, stressed, or just plain in a hurry, is not all that sexy a proposition.
Might even seem like a pain in the ass to you.
It was painful for me at first as well. But with practice I’ve gotten better and better at it until now it’s just second nature and part of the shopping routine.
As I’ve stated before, we would all rather be eating fresh fruits and vegetables every day rather than relying on things out of a bag or box, but that’s not really practical every single day, Just do the best you can with that and then take steps to ensure you’re eating the best stuff you possibly can be.
Taking control of your wellbeing and doing all you can to achieve optimum health is a very empowering feeling. Look at it as making an investment in yourself.
I know you can spare a little extra time and effort to be the best you can possibly be.
Until next time…
Ted is a writer and avid researcher on the subject of nutrition and general wellness. He has recently published books on Sugar Detox as well as the inflammation epidemic, and continues to improve his knowledge by constantly remaining up to date with the latest news and trends in the nutrition world. When not busy writing, you can find him playing banjo and guitar, or outside fishing.