10 Tips to Help You Understand Food Labels
Updated: Dec 14, 2020
Don't be fooled by marketing buzzwords; know how to understand food labels and choose the best foods for you!
So many of us want to be healthier but don't know where to start! When you look at food labels it can be overwhelming with lists of numbers, terms, and hard to pronounce ingredients. It becomes easier to fall in the trap of believing the bolded words like "All Natural", "Low-fat," and "Vegan" when it comes to making your food selection--which doesn't usually mean it's better for you.
I want you to feel empowered when you pick up a food item and ask yourself if it's going to get you closer to your health goals. One of my favorite cliché saying's is, "education is power." I recommend saving this to Pinterest or book marking the page to easily be able to refer back to it in the future at the grocery store 😉
Feel confident with your grocery selection with these 10 tips on how to read food labels
1. The less ingredients listed the better
Whatever your health goals are, cutting down or out excess ingredients will serve you! Many of the ingredients used in packaged or pre-made foods confuses your body because it doesn't know how to break-down engineered chemicals. Thus, leaving it to store these ingredients in your bones, joints, or tissues, convert it into fat, or treat is as a foreigner to be eliminated (stomach aches, allergic reactions, etc.). My general rule is, if the product has 10 or less ingredients it's worth considering. If the ingredient list looks too long I'll just put it back on the shelf. The best foods for you won't even have a food label! If you pick up an apple you know it's a straight-up apple. If you grab some raw potatoes you know exactly what you're getting. If most of your grocery cart is foods with no labels you're on the right path with your diet.
2. Ingredients are listed in order of most used in the product.
Did you know this?! When you see sugar listed first on the list of ingredients that means it's the majority of what's in the product. I find this helpful when I know there's certain ingredients I want to avoid or limit. For example, since I can't really have much dairy, if I see it listed toward the beginning of the list I know I can't have it. Beware though, many companies have found a loop hole and will call the same ingredient different things to avoid having to list it first. For example: Companies know you don't want to eat pure sugar, so they may list it as the 5th ingredient and then a little farther down call it beet sugar, or one of the many names listed on tip #6 (below).
3. If you can't pronounce it, don't eat it.
If a product is minimally processed and made with quality ingredients you should be able to recognize the ingredients listed and be able to pronounce them. Otherwise, you're likely consuming garbage the food industries pumping in to make food last disgustingly long, cut costs for them, or get us addicted. Some of these ingredients look like they're chemicals for a science experiment! Monosodium Glutamate is a popular one you might see. It's short term is MSG and it's used to simply enhance the flavor of the food and make you crave it more. Although it's considered safe by the FDA, it confuses your taste buds and can make you feel like you need to eat even more of the food.
4. Don't be fooled by buzzwords
Companies in the food industry are strategic with their packaging. They know the public wants to be healthier but they still need us to buy their sugary fruit snacks. How do you solve that problem? Slap the words "Natural fruit juice" on the front and make the packaging look more earthy. They're banking on the fact that their consumers don't understand how to read the labels and will reach for the foods that allude to being healthier. Here are some popular words or terms you might see: all-natural, organic, fat-free, low-carb, gluten-free, vegan, keto, paleo, etc. I'll be honest, I do pick up these foods but I make sure to evaluate everything before deciding it I want to eat it. 5. Check the sugar and sodium
This one may be a bit obvious but as a general rule try to choose foods with the least amount of sugar and sodium. The average daily intake of sugar for men is 35 grams and for women is 25 grams. Most Starbucks orders have more sugar than that! The average daily sodium limit for an adult is 2,300 milligrams (mg). This sounds like a lot but most adults consume way more than that. Salt is often used as a key ingredient to preserve packaged goods and is even pumped into meat such as chicken breasts, to increase the weight which increases the price!
6. Other words for sugar
If you're trying to cut down on sugar (which I highly recommend if you're trying to improve your health, clear up acne, balance hormones or heal gut) you'll want to be aware of the many sneaky terms used to label it on the ingredients list. 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, 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. 7. Avoid or limit "Natural flavors"
You should google where does vanilla come from. It just might make you start double checking natural flavors. Natural flavors is an umbrella term that leaves us in the dark about what we're really consuming. The ingredients are derived from plant or animal sources but that doesn't mean you want to consume it! In some cases it can harmlessly be a spice extracted from a plant but in other cases, such as imitation vanilla, it can be anal excretions from a beaver!!!!!! I told you google it. I generally just try to avoid things with natural flavors listed because it's fishy to me. Why don't they want to disclose what they're putting in the food? 8. Look at serving size
Whether you're tracking calories or want to get an idea of how much nutrition is in the product looking at the serving size is important! For example, most cereals have the serving sizes as less than 1 cup, but many of us will fill a bowl with more than that! So although you may be choosing a cereal with low sugar or low calories, you may actually be consuming more than you want. 9. Check the % Percent daily value
This tip is actually fairly new to me as well! When you look at the nutrition label of a product you'll notice the % daily values on the right side. If you want to know if something is a good source of carbs, fiber, protein, vitamins, and other nutrients you will want to look at the number listed by each. If it's %5 or less that’s too low (unless its sugar, sodium, or saturated fat—you want those low) and if it's 20% of higher that’s too high.
10. Is it actually made with whole grains?
This little math equation is best used on anything claiming to be full of whole grains. When looking for true whole grain products divide the carbs by fiber. If the sum is less than 5 it's good quality whole grain. This is great to use for breads, cereals, crackers and tortillas. Here's an example of how to put the equation to the test: Ezekiel bread has 15 mg of Carbohydrates and 3 grams of fiber. Divide 15 by 3= 5! Meaning it's full of quality whole grains. Don't ask me why that’s what the ratio is but that's what the experts say to use 😊
If you have any questions feel free to reach out to me on Instagram @brittbehealthy or email me at email@example.com. I've helped several women navigate what questions to ask their doctors and I love having these discussions.