Friday, July 6, 2012

Reading Nutrition Labels for Dummies


“You ruin the fun of food,” hubby says to me when I give him the thumbs down on a bottle of steak sauce he was eyeing up in Kroger.  Hubby wants steak sauce,  I try to help make sure he is choosing one as natural as possible: no high fructose corn syrup, no artificial sugars, minimum artificial ingredients.  He was half joking, of course. I don’t ruin food fun, I just make sure that the foods that we put in our bodies (most of the time) are as natural as possible.  The truth is that if we keep looking, we can find a steak sauce that tastes good and is not full of processed ingredients. Steak sauce still can taste good without high fructose corn syrup. It took me a long time to learn how to properly read a food label. For years, I just looked at the calorie, fat, and sugar content to determine if it was a healthy choice or not. I was missing a giant piece of the puzzle.  

Here are a few things I have learned about label reading along the way:

Lesson one:  

You can’t trust food packaging marketing. Completely ignore all marketing claims on packaging, they mean nothing. Claims like Fat Free, Low Fat, No Sugar added, Sugar Free, and Diet are almost always red flags that the product is not a healthy choice. No sugar added or sugar free usually means it is sweetened with artificial sweeteners and is full of chemicals. Likewise, when something is marketed as low fat or fat free, the sugar and unhealthy carb content usually goes up.  You are better off eating the full fat version.  If it says “made with whole grains,” that could mean it is mostly made with white flour and a pinch of whole grain was added.  If something says “Healthy” on the package, don’t blindly trust the marketing, read the ingredients to determine for yourself.  Cereal that says, “made with whole grains,” but has 17 grams of sugar per serving is not a healthy choice. The brand Healthy Choice is almost never really a healthy choice.  The words “All Natural” on a package mean absolutely nothing.  Diet drinks are almost never a healthy choice.  Read the label and see for yourself. 

Lesson two: 

Read the ingredients on the package.  Do this first, before you look at the nutrition facts part of the label.  Are there five ingredients or less? Can you pronounce every one of them?  Do you recognize each of them as whole natural foods?  If so, this is a good product to buy.  Does it have high fructose corn syrup? Artificial sweeteners? Chemicals?  lot of sugar? Hydrogenated anything?  If so, probably not the healthiest choice.  The ingredients are listed in order of content, so if sugar is the first ingredient, it has more sugar than any other ingredient.  I have found if you read the ingredients first and it passes the all-natural test, it almost doesn’t matter what the rest of the nutrition label reads. 

Lesson three: 

Once you have read the ingredients list and it passes the test, it is time to evaluate the nutrition facts part of the label.  First, I make sure the sugar and sodium content is in check. If sugar is not listed in the ingredients, but it is on the nutrition facts label, that means the sugar is occurring naturally (like in fruit) and that, of course, is much better than refined sugar. Personally, at this point, I don’t overly concern myself with fat content, calories, or carbohydrates.  If it is a whole natural food with minimal sugar and sodium, these other things usually keep themselves in check. If you are watching fat content, counting calories or carbs, then by all means, once you determined that this is a whole natural food, make sure the nutritional content falls within your personal guidelines. 

Bottom line, nutritional labels can be deceiving if you don’t evaluate the ingredient list first.  If you only read the nutrition facts part of the label, then you are missing a giant piece of the puzzle.  A product could have only 10 calories, 0 fat, 0 sugar, 0 carbs, and that sound healthy on the surface, but if it is loaded with artificial sweeteners and chemicals, then that is not something you want to put in your body.

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