I understand as a consumer how confusing it can be to know if a food is really healthy or not by the product claims on the front, so I’ve got some great tips to learn ways to read food labels to help you find out the truth. A product can say it is healthy on the front but many times, when you turn it over, the label reveals something different. The problem occurs when you don’t know what to actually look for on the label itself. So, to help you out a bit, I’ve got some simple ways to read food labels that can tell you quickly if it’s healthy or not. Don’t read the front of food packages to rely on if something is good for you or not; just turn it over and see for yourself!
1. Ingredient List
While the nutrition numbers on a label may look decent, or even favorable, one of the most efficient ways to read food labels is to start with the ingredient list. How many ingredients does it actually contain? Too many to count? Then you might want to put it back on the shelf. Even gluten-free products, organic products, etc. can be full of unnecessary ingredients, additives, or other ingredients you might even be allergic to. Read the ingredient list and see if you understand what the ingredients actually are. If they are whole foods, the product is safe. If they are isolated, partially hydrogenated, enriched, etc., it isn’t a whole food. A good example is hummus, which is a processed form of a whole food. When you turn over and read the ingredients, optimally it should read: chickpeas ( garbanzo beans), tahini, sea salt, olive oil, herbs, spices. Also be sure the product says MSG free if it includes the word “spices” or “natural flavors” on the ingredient list. Both terms are coded names for MSG.
2. Sugar Content
When reading the label on a food package, I always look at the sugar levels after the ingredient list. If it has more than 5-10 grams per serving, I usually always put it back. Even if it is a healthy food like a fruit and net bar etc., remember that anything above 10 grams of sugar is A LOT of sugar for one small serving of food, natural or not. While a natural fruit bar is much healthier than a batch of processed cookies, it still isn’t optimal compared to a food with higher fiber and lower sugar. Also, watch out for the ingredients evaporated cane juice, cane sugar, palm sugar, high fructose corn syrup, corn syrup solids, and of course, sugar. Those are all processed forms of sugar that aren’t necessary and should be avoided.
3. Fiber Content
Speaking of fiber, when looking at the label, take a look at the total carbohydrate content. Then look at the fiber content. How many of those carbs are fiber? Carbohydrates contain both fiber and sugars and other carbs that aren’t either sugar or fiber, but starch. I always try to look for a carbohydrate that contains most of the carbs from fiber, not many from sugar, and hardly any with starch, which doesn't have much nutrition. For example, chia seeds have 7 grams of carbs per serving with 6 of those being fiber. This leaves a net carb count of 1 gram of carbs per serving. When you get in the habit of seeing carbs this way, you won’t fear the total amount as much as you will what those carbs are made of. The exception is vegetables like sweet potatoes and winter squash, which are naturally wonderful sources of plant-based carbs that your body can optimally use. Always aim to eat foods higher in fiber than sugar, and never any that don’t contain any fiber, but do have lots of sugar.
While I don’t like to push certain nutrients like protein over the quality of what the ingredients are, protein content is a good thing to look at on a label. If the ingredients are clean, I also like to look at the protein. I usually only apply this to shelf items, not fresh produce, fruits, nuts, etc., which are whole foods that are healthy for you, no matter what their protein content. For example, almond butter. Almond butter contains 7 grams of protein per serving, which is great! If you’re eating a somewhat processed item like almond butter, it should contain a good source of natural protein because this will help keep you full and stabilize your blood sugar. Apply this rule mostly to snacks, and not to items like condiments, beverages, etc.
I’m pretty picky about sodium on labels. If it contains over 200 mg. per serving, I don’t buy it, with the exception being raw sauerkraut, which is naturally high in sodium from salt being added during fermentation. Don’t buy processed foods with lots of added sodium. Many protein powders, snacks, condiments, etc. can be very high in sodium, which can increase your blood pressure and can even make you dehydrated or give you a headache. Even almond milk is high in sodium, as are more natural foods like salsa. You don't have to avoid them, but watch the serving size and the amount per serving. I buy almond milk and salsa like I’m sure many of you do, but I watch my servings. The daily limit for sodium is around 1500 milligrams per day, with an optimal level being around 1000-1200 milligrams max. So, if you buy foods with sodium added, be sure that you look at how many milligrams are in each food you eat so you can keep up with your levels each day.
While you should obviously eat foods that have no preservatives, I found it worth noting that you should look out for these on an ingredient label. Anything such as benzoates, potassium sulfates, citric acid, BHT, nitrates, BHA, propylene glycol, propyl alcohol, carrageenan, monosodium glutamate, trans fats, aspartame or artificial sweeteners should be completely avoided. These preservatives produce many toxic responses in the body that won’t help you, just hinder you. There are plenty of better foods out there to buy, so be sure to avoid these preservatives and ingredients however possible.
7. Allergen Warning
This is something that I always recommend people look at on the ingredient list. When buying foods, always aim to look at the allergen warning label to ensure the product doesn’t contain wheat, soy, dairy, peanuts, eggs or shellfish if you’re sensitive. If you’re not sensitive, it is best to avoid processed forms of gluten since they are refined and don’t contain the nutrients found in the seeds and germ of whole grains that gluten comes from. Also, try to avoid processed soy however possible, which is usually a GMO source of soy, not the whole food itself such as soybeans. Obviously if a label says gluten-free or soy-free, these allergens won’t be included, but right under the ingredient list, you’ll see an allergen warning statement. It never hurts to take a peek at that just to be sure, since so many ingredients are coded as hidden terms on food labels.
Did you notice I didn’t say to look at the fat grams on a label? While I think avoiding harmful fats is crucial, I don’t think looking at the fat grams or calorie count on a label tells you if it is healthy. A low fat protein that has no sugar can be full of GMO ingredients, processed preservatives, gluten and other things you can't even pronounce. If you’re looking at the rest of these ingredients I’ve shared with you, and the food is a whole, preferably raw fat, then you should be safe. While I don’t promote a high fat diet, I do believe healthy fats are important and total calories aren’t nearly as important as the qualities of calories are. What’s the first thing you look for on a label?