Learn to Decipher Common Food Labels
LEARN TO DECIPHER FOOD LABELS
Food labels contain a lot of useful information, but it can be difficult to make sense of it all. Fortunately, you can eat healthy without having to learn a lot of complicated scientific equations or mathematical calculations.
This is a simple guide to clearing up the most common sources of confusion about food labels and mastering easy choices for better eating.
Common Sources of Confusion
- Regard all sugars equally. Manufacturers sometimes use many different names for sweeteners, knowing that consumers may be trying to avoid sugar. You’re still getting a lot of empty calories if a food is high in molasses, honey, or high-fructose corn syrup.
- Pay careful attention to serving sizes. Portions are another tricky area. You may expect to get 4 servings out of a small ice cream container, but the label is actually based on half that much. Ensure you know how many calories you’re really eating!
- Calculate the true value of organic food. At the expense of avoiding pesticides, organic food usually cost more. Though I recommend you buy certified organic, if it’s too expensive know you can eat nonorganic and not lose out on nutrition. This means that when money’s tight you can eat nonorganic and still meet your nutritional goals. However, you may still want to buy it if you’re concerned about completely avoiding pesticides.
- Be vigilant about trans fats. The "trans" fats found in many processed foods have been associated with heart disease and other health issues. A product may contain these fats even if the label says "0 grams"! That’s because the FDA allows this as long as the amount is below 1 gram. Your best protection is to eat mostly whole, natural foods.
- Hold out for 100% whole wheat. Phrases like "100% wheat" or "stoneground" sound promising but may actually be the refined grains you want to eliminate. Always check the label to ensure that whole wheat or some whole grain is listed as the first ingredient. For oats, stick to steel cut varieties.
- Keep an eye on net weight. Instead of raising prices, which is unpopular with consumers, manufactures will often reduce the weight of packaged foods to make more profit while keeping the price the same. When comparing two brands of the same food that are the same price, look at the weights.
Master the Easiest Choices
- Load up on vegetables and fruits. Getting most of your calories from fresh produce is the simplest way to eat healthy, and you can mostly forget about reading labels. Keep in mind that frozen and canned varieties are comparable in nutritional value.
- Drink skim milk. If you haven’t make the switch to veganism yet, stick to skim milk. Low-fat and no-fat dairy products deliver as much protein and calcium as their whole-fat counterparts, but have little or no saturated fats. Most people over the age of 2 are better off drinking skim milk.
- Buy plain yogurt. Yogurt is a power food that most people can eat even if they are lactose intolerant. Adding your own flavors to plain yogurt lets you avoid added sugars. Try stirring in fresh fruit, granola, or cinnamon.
- Include healthy fats in your diet. While it’s best to limit saturated fats and avoid "trans" fats completely, there are other fats that are good for you. Go ahead and indulge in avocados, raw nuts and sensible servings of extra virgin olive oil.
Learn to read food labels like a pro and make healthier choices for you and your family. Food regulations change, so it’s best to subscribe to websites like this one and others that report shifts in food labeling that affect health. Also, frequent sites that report products with hidden trans fat and other ingredient coverups such as renaming. Knowledge is power for your health.