In an ideal world we would only eat whole foods. But, even the most mindful eaters among us usually rely on a few packaged foods as staples – say your morning yogurt, the can of black beans that you use for your favorite tacos, or the broth that goes into your tastiest soup recipe. Unless you live in some blissfully remote part of the country, there are probably some packaged foods crossing your threshold on a relatively regular basis. To get a full picture of what you’re consuming, it’s crucial that you learn to read and interpret the labels on those packages.
I always tell my patients that reading labels is truly a form of dietary self-defense. Not only will it help you avoid obvious dietary pitfalls such as excess sodium and sugar, it will help you observe what you’re putting into your body and how it makes you feel on a daily basis. For example, certain artificial flavors and colors have been associated with hyperactivity, while other ingredients such as sugar alcohols can cause digestive upset. It takes time to fully understand the relationship between the foods you eat and how they affect your overall health, and the best way to begin this process is to arm yourself with information by reading and interpreting your food labels.
Here are some guidelines to get you started:
>>>> Assess the Nutritional Label <<<<
1. Look at Serving Size
Start by looking at the nutrition facts and the serving size. Packages frequently contain more than a single serving, which means that you may have to multiply all of the amounts listed to get an accurate picture of how many calories or how much sugar is in a single container.
2. Check Calorie Count
Although calories are only part of the picture when it comes to reading labels, they’re vital to help you determine appropriate portion size. The standard daily caloric intake guidelines are 1,800-2,200 calories for adult women and 2,200-2,500 for adult men. (These calculations vary according to physical activity.) So, if you choose a food with 700 calories per serving, keep in mind that is approximately one-third of your daily calorie intake.
3. Avoid Enemy Fats
Trans fats raise LDL (“bad” cholesterol), lower HDL (“good” cholesterol), and slow your metabolism. Look for foods with zero trans fats, but be aware of this disturbing little factoid: If a product contains less than 1 gram of trans fat per serving, it can be listed as containing zero trans fats. Those trace amounts can really add up if you’re eating multiple servings per day.
So, how can you avoid eating trans fats? The best thing to do is stay away from foods that contain any partially or fully hydrogenated oils, which contain large quantities of trans fats and other altered fat substances. Hydrogenated oils, which are often found in commercial baked goods, are designed to be impervious to bacteria so that they can sit on grocery store shelves for long periods of time. Is it any surprise that our own bodies would have trouble breaking down and processing these synthetic compounds?
4. Minimize Sodium
The recommended maximum daily intake of sodium is 2,300 mg per day (about one teaspoon), or 1500 mg per day if you’re over 40 or have hypertension. Consuming excess sodium is correlated with hypertension because it draws in water, which increases blood volume, which in turn increases blood pressure. The increased pressure strains the heart and increases the risk of atherosclerosis. If you have hypertension or heart disease, talk to your health care provider to determine your recommended daily limit of sodium.
5. Choose Carbs Wisely and Avoid Added Sugars
Carbohydrates (“carbs”) are often demonized in the media, but in truth, they’re abundant in whole foods and are a very important source of energy. The key thing to keep in mind is that complex carbohydrates (i.e., the carbohydrates in natural, fibrous foods like fruits & vegetables) are infinitely better for you than simple carbohydrates like refined sugar. The presence of fiber in complex carbs causes your body to break down the food more slowly, thus preventing sudden spikes in blood sugar. This is why you’ve likely heard that eating a piece of fruit is a healthier option than simply drinking fruit juice—the whole piece of fruit contains fiber, while the juice has been processed and stripped of fiber.
When you look at a food label, you’ll notice that there’s no recommended daily amount for sugar; the amount of sugar in the food is simply listed in grams. But most of us can’t really visualize a gram of sugar. To get a better picture, try converting grams to teaspoons by dividing by 4. For example, 20 grams of sugar is the equivalent of 5 teaspoons of sugar. As you read labels, you may realize that your daily sugar intake includes a lot more than what you add to your coffee!
Keep things simple by choosing complex carbohydrates, and by keeping added sugars to a minimum. For further advice, consult a nutritionist – we love talking about this stuff!
6. Get Your Fiber On
The American Dietetic Association recommends 25 g of dietary fiber for adult women and 38 g for adult men per day. Fiber is a crucial component of any food because it helps prevent big swings in blood sugar, keep your colon healthy, and best of all, it makes you feel full – so you eat less!
>>>> Interpret the Ingredients <<<<
After you assess the nutritional components in your food, look at the list of ingredients.
7. Stick with Short Ingredients Lists
Ingredients are listed in order by weight, so the first items on the list make up the bulk of the food. Look for foods containing unprocessed, recognizable ingredients. If you can’t pronounce or don’t recognize some of the ingredients, put the product back on the shelf!
Another common rule of thumb is to look for foods with no more than five ingredients. Lengthy lists are usually a sign that a product has unnecessary extras such as artificial preservatives. (To learn more about additives and preservatives and their potential effects, visit the website of the Center for Science in the Public Interest.
8. Look for Sugars with Nutritional Benefits
White sugar is highly processed and has been stripped of other nutrients. Instead of white sugar, look for less-processed sugars such as:
- Brown rice sweeteners , which usually include fiber
- Honey, which contains beneficial antioxidants
- Molasses, which contains trace minerals such as calcium, potassium, iron and magnesium
Please remember even though these types of sugars have more nutritional value than other processed sugars, they’re still sugars, and should be kept to a minimum.
9. Be Aware of “Hidden” Sugars
Sugar can masquerade under many different names. Be on the lookout for dextrose, fructose, galactose, glucose, lactose, levulose, maltose, sucrose, mannitol, sorbitol, xylitol, beet sugar, corn sugar, corn sweetener, high fructose corn syrup, invert sugar, isomalt, maltodextrins, maple sugar, sorghum or turbinado sugar. You might even find more than one listed. These are all just variations on high-calorie, low-nutrient, added sugar.
Sugar alcohols deserve special mention – there are many different types, a few of the most common include: sorbitol, mannitol, and maltitol. A food sweetened with “sugar alcohols” can say “0 grams sugar” on the nutritional label, but if the product is labeled ‘sugar-free’ or ‘no added sugar,’ the manufacturer must list the sugar alcohol count separately.
In general sugar alcohols are not completely absorbed by the body, which means they can have less of an impact on your blood sugar. That’s arguably a good thing, but the side effects are often intestinal discomfort, bloating and gas, so our advice is generally to steer clear!
10. Look for Whole Grain Breads
If you don’t see the word “whole” before the name of a grain, it’s not a whole grain. “Enriched flour” is not a whole grain product, nor is “unbleached white flour.” They are the same as white flour and have been stripped of fiber. To maximize your fiber intake, look for whole grains in the ingredient lists. (For more information, visit the website of the Whole Grains Council.)
11. Know that Ingredients May Change
Even if you’ve been buying a particular product for years, it’s still a good idea to glance at the ingredients list every once in awhile. Things change! A recent example is Green & Black’s chocolate – their dark chocolate was always deliciously dairy free, but since they were acquired by Kraft Foods in January of 2010, their chocolate now contains whole milk powder. This may seem inconsequential, but if you’re sensitive to dairy it is important to know.
When you begin reading food labels, it can feel almost feel like a second job. But once you get into the swing of it, it becomes more natural. Most importantly, it puts you back in control of what you’re eating. Start with a close examination of one or two packaged foods on a weekly basis—take a moment or two to understand what you’re really putting into your body…and let us know how it goes!