How to Be an Expert Label Reader
Written by: Anika Christ, RD, CISSN, CPT – Life Time Fitness
The food labels we see today were designed to tell consumers exactly what they are eating. You’ll find a wealth of information that includes how healthy the product is — but do you know how to interpret that information? And consumers tend to overlook the most important information: the ingredients list. Following these guidelines can help you focus on what really matters on a label and help you make better food decisions.
What’s in the Numbers?
The nutritional labels we see today have only been around for a few decades. Regulated by the Food and Drug Association, the label is designed to guide consumers’ attention to suggested serving sizes and the numerical values (calories, grams) of the nutrients within the food.
People look at food labels for different reasons, but overall, the number one reason tends to be the calories per serving. Judging the quality of the food solely on calories is a mistake for a true label reader. We’ve become a nation so driven by portion control and calories that we tend to forget we should eat for nutrients.
Another reason we should not solely focus on the numbers is because they can be manipulated. Food manufacturers, not the government, choose the suggested serving size. If they want the calories and numbers to look low (so you’ll be more likely to purchase), the serving size is adjusted. Food companies have gotten savvy with this practice; and they tend to add artificial ingredients (low in calories and grams) to products so the numbers look as good as possible.
Step one of expert shopper shopping: Read through an ingredient list. The list can be hard to find with its tiny font written below the big chart of numbers, but here is where you can find out whether the product is worth your money. A lot of food imposters look good numerically, containing the ideal amounts of calories and grams. But if the ingredient list has shortcomings, those numbers don’t mean a thing.
Here are some general rules on what to look for in your label reading:
- Length of ingredient list: If the list is long, chances are it includes chemical additives we don’t necessarily want to consume. Although this is not always true, a good guide point is choosing a list with five ingredients or less.
- Ingredients you recognize and can pronounce: Ideally, if you can’t identify a food product, you don’t want to eat it. One experiment to try is to compare two similar products. For example, grab a plain, full fat yogurt and compare it one of those “light” or low-calorie options. Numerically, the light option is going to look healthier because the fat and calories will be lower. However, you may not be able to pronounce half the ingredients in the light option (it may sound more like a science experiment than food you want to eat). You’ll notice the plain, full fat one has more recognizable ingredients and a shorter list. Try starting side-by-side comparisons of most of the foods on your list.
- Ingredients to avoid: The following list is a good start of ingredients that have been shown detrimental to our health. If the food product contains any of these, put it back on the shelf.
- Hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oils (trans fat)
- High-fructose corn syrup or corn sugar
- BHA (butylated hydroxyanisole) or BHT (butylated hydroxytoluene)
- Artificial sweeteners (aspartame, sucralose, saccharin)
- Bleached flour
- Nitrates or nitrites
- MSG (monosodium glutamate)
Use these tips as a starting point in your label reading. We’ll dissect the other parts of the label in future articles.
Remember that a sound nutrition program begins with an array of foods that don’t have labels. Fruits and vegetables, raw nuts and seeds, and lean protein typically are label free, for a reason. Fill your cart with a majority of these foods, spend time reading the ingredient list of processed and packaged foods and you’ll be set up for a much more successful nutrition plan.
This article is not intended for the treatment or prevention of disease, nor as a substitute for medical treatment, nor as an alternative to medical advice. Use of recommendations in this and other articles is at the choice and risk of the reader.