Food labels provide key information to what nutrients are in your packaged food items, but interpreting them in many cases can be confusing. Being able to read food labels and interpret claims on food packaging is an extremely important tool to have in order to choose healthy foods in the grocery store. Unfortunately, you won’t always have a nutritionist there holding your hand through the grocery store to interpret the ingredients and confusing aspects of the food label. I do, however, offer Grocery Store Tours to help my clients pick out healthy foods and teach them how to read labels! There are many misconceptions on food packaging because much of it has to do with marketing and sometimes trying to convince the consumer it is a healthy food when maybe it isn’t so good for you. Here are some tips to better help you interpret food packaging terms and labels:
1. Don’t let the claims on the package fool you! Here is some tricky language that can be used on the label which may require some further investigation on the ingredient label:
Light or low-fat. Light products are processed to reduce either calories or fat. Some products are simply watered down. Check carefully to see if anything has been added instead like sugar. Avoid buying light products as many important nutrients such as omega-3 fatty acids are usually taken out to lower the fat content.
Multigrain. Multigrain sounds very healthy but only means that a product contains more than one type of grain. These are most likely refined grains so buy "whole-grain" instead.
Made with whole grains. The product may contain very little whole grains. Check the ingredients list — if whole grains aren't in the first three ingredients, the amount is negligible. Choose "whole grain" instead.
Natural. This does not necessarily mean that the product resembles anything natural. This is a marketing term that just means the manufacturer worked with natural food like apples or rice in making the product.
Organic. Although buying organic is very important to avoid harmful pesticide residue, the term organic does not necessarily guarantee that the product is healthy. For example, organic foods can still contain refined sugars and pro-inflammatory oils.
No added sugar. Some products are naturally high in sugar. The fact that they don't have added sugar doesn't mean they're healthy. Unhealthy sugar substitutes may also have been added such as artificial sweeteners.
Low-calorie or low carb. Low-calorie products have to have one-third fewer calories than the brand's original product. Yet, one brand's low-calorie version may have similar calories as another brand’s original. Processed foods that are labeled low-carb are usually still processed junk foods, similar to processed low-fat foods.
Fortified or enriched. This means that some nutrients have been added to the product. For example, vitamin D is often added to milk. Yet, just because something is fortified doesn’t make it healthy.
Gluten-free. This doesn’t mean healthy. The product simply doesn't contain wheat, spelt, rye, or barley. Many gluten-free foods are highly processed and loaded with unhealthy fats and sugar.
Fruit-flavored. Many processed foods have a name that refers to a natural flavor, such as strawberry yogurt. However, the product may not contain any fruit and only chemicals designed to taste like fruit.
Zero trans fat. This phrase means "less than 0.5 grams of trans fat per serving." If the serving sizes are misleadingly small, the product may contain trans-fat which extremely harmful to your health.
Natural Flavors. Natural flavors, similar to artificial flavors, are far from natural and contain many harmful chemicals and additives.
2. Look at the ingredient list.
Product ingredients are listed by quantity from highest to lowest amount. This means that the first ingredient is what the manufacturer used the most of. Scan the first three ingredients, as they make up the largest part of what you're eating. If the first ingredients include refined sugars a type of sugar, or hydrogenated oils, you can assume that the product is unhealthy. Instead, try choosing items that have whole foods listed as the first three ingredients. Make sure to analyze the entire list, even if certain ingredients are present in small amounts there could be adverse risks to your health. Be aware that if the ingredient list is very long, it is probably a highly processed food.
3. Check the serving size of the food item.
Nutrition labels state how many calories and nutrients are in a standard amount of the product which often a suggested single serving for the average person. However, these serving sizes are frequently much smaller than what people consume in one sitting. Be aware of how many servings you actually eat and be sure to multiply the nutrients on the label according to your portion. Even products that seem to be a single serving, like a bottle of soda, sometimes contain 2 or more servings.
4. Look out for the different names for sugar hidden in your packaged goods.
There are over 40 different names for sugar, so beware of these hidden sugars and sweeteners in your food items:
Types of sugar: beet sugar, brown sugar, buttered sugar, cane sugar, caster sugar, coconut sugar, date sugar, golden sugar, invert sugar, muscovado sugar, organic raw sugar, raspadura sugar, evaporated cane juice, and confectioner's sugar.
Types of syrup: carob syrup, golden syrup, high fructose corn syrup. , honey, agave nectar, malt syrup, maple syrup, oat syrup, rice bran syrup, and rice syrup.
Other added sugars: barley malt, molasses, cane juice crystals, lactose, corn sweetener, crystalline fructose, dextran, malt powder, ethyl maltol, fructose, fruit juice concentrate, galactose, glucose, disaccharides, maltodextrin, and maltose.