Reading labels is one of the most important things you can do to become an advocate for your own health. It’s a good habit to get into while grocery shopping, even though at times it seems like a foreign language. We are all subject to claims made on the front of packaged items; “natural” or “made with real fruit juice,” etc. are often just marketing tactics and don’t necessarily mean all the ingredients are wholesome and good for you. Some basic things to remember are that ingredients are always listed in order of weight, which means the first ingredients are usually the main ingredients. Also know that the “% Daily Values” is based on a 2000 calorie per day diet recommended by the FDA and USDA.
Let’s get into more detail about some tricky labeling.
The nutritional information on packaged food is based on a serving size that is almost never for the entire container. In other words, if a bottled drink reads “2 servings per container,” make sure you multiply all the nutritional content information by two, including the calories and the % Daily Value (right hand side). Sounds like a no-brainer (maybe we’re only supposed to have one of the servings?), but don’t forget how easy it is to buy a package of seemingly healthy cookies and before you know it, there are only a few left… and you’ve just had five servings. Damn those Newman-O’s are addictive.
We sure like our salt, and I don’t just mean adding a few shakes here and there to your home-cooked meals. It’s actually found in the most excess in processed foods, fast foods, and sports drinks. Although we do need some salt in our system- especially athletes- to keep our fluids in check, too much sodium can have negative consequences. Fluid retention can cause high blood pressure or kidney disease, in the most extreme cases. According to Dietary Guidelines, we should consume 1500-2400 mg per day, though the average American consumes around 3400.
“Low-fat” or “non-fat” can be deceiving. Always check the ingredients to see what the fat content is in grams, and this will really tell you what you’re ingesting. We should not consume more than 65 grams of fat and 20 grams of saturated fat. Saturated fats are commonly known as the “solid fats,” such as butter, fatty meats, and coconut oil, that can raise levels of bad cholesterol. Anything with “partially hydrogenated” (when oils are hydrogenated during processing) means it contains trans fats, one of the worst things for your health. These fats raise levels of bad cholesterol and lower levels of good cholesterol. Avoid margarine, Ramen noodles, and potato chips for this reason.
Sugar content stated in nutritional facts lumps processed and naturally-occuring sugars together, so read the ingredients to know what sugar occurs naturally in foods, like in fruit or diary products, and what sugar was added. Some tricky words to look for that mean added sugar are: evaporated cane juice, crystalline fructose, brown rice syrup, fructose, anything with corn syrup, sucrose, dextrose, dextrin, molasses, fruit juice, fruit juice concentrate and sorghum. The recommended daily intake of sugar is no more than 6-7% of total calories (or 30-32 grams for a 2000 calorie per day diet). Did you know that for every four grams of sugar listed in the nutritional contents is equal to 1 tsp. of white sugar? Yikes.
Gluten in found in wheat or wheat-based products (wheat berries, bulgar couscous, spelt, farro, seitan), barley, rye, malt (malt vinegar, most beer), teriyaki sauce, and soy sauce. For those celiacs or wheat-intolerant folks, this is especially important to read the labels for since they are hiding in more packaged food than you may suspect.
Bottom line, stick to whole, fresh ingredients and make sure you understand what the words mean on the ingredients list!
Links and additional information:
FDA consumer guide to understanding food labels
Checking Food Labels from Howstuffworks.com
USDA’s database for added sugar content
The loopholes of food labeling, SparkPeople
Hidden Sugar, Spark People
Full list of ingredients containing gluten