Am I crazy, or is reading a food label far more confusing than my college calculus class? Every time I visit a grocery store, I am shocked by the length food manufacturers will go to deceive us, the customers. We are busy people who don’t have the time to decode confusing labels, and big food companies depend on our ignorance. Below, I will make this process much more simple for you so you can take your health into your own hands.
The true purpose of a food label is to educate and inform the consumer, but food labels are like a first date, they spend a lot of time highlighting their good qualities and very little showcasing the bad, but, sooner or later you are going to find out the truth at the cost of your relationship with your health.
Food manufacturer’s create labels that are misleading and confusing to distract you from cancer causing carcinogens, high bad fat content, hidden sugars, and toxic chemical processes. In a perfect world, you’re eating whole foods in their natural form and you aren’t buying too many foods that require label decoding, but that’s not always possible, even for me.
No one is going to make it easy on you to decode their foods as long as they stand to profit from you buying it. So, we need to take it upon ourselves to get straight on our food labels. It’s not just ingredients, it’s nutritional content too. It’s taken years to figure this all out. I have finally created seven easy steps for you to follow when you go food shopping:
- Familiarize Your Self with Serving Size – Official serving sizes on most packaged foods are misleading and frankly just too small for what the average person consumes in a serving. To help this deception, the serving size is often listed in a much smaller font then the rest of the label. Food companies bank on you making a quick decision without noticing that the serving size of your ice cream is half the amount the average person consumes! Be sure to get clear on how many servings you’ll likely eat before you move on to the other stats.
- Sugar & Hidden Sugars – The average American is consuming sugar at an all time high of about 22 teaspoons, or just under a half a cup of sugar per day. Sugar causes inflammation linked to increased cancer risk. It is for that reason that I am constantly on the lookout for sugar in disguise. We expect to find sugar in our candy and desserts, but the average consumer isn’t aware that a can of marinara sauce is a death trap. There are hidden sugars in almost all processed foods, especially “low fat” and “non fat” foods. If you want to lower your cancer risk and improve your health you MUST be aware of hidden sugars and know your sugar imposters. You can review a cohesive list of sugars here, keep in mind, there are over 100 names to look out for! Sugar is listed in grams on our nutritional labels, therefore, familiarizing yourself with the equation to tablespoons is very helpful. One teaspoon of sugar is equivalent to 4 grams. I tell my clients to eat as little sugar as possible, well below the FDA maximum amounts. You can actually never go too low in your amount of sugar intake, there should technically be no recommended amount of daily sugars, but should be a cap on it. I recommend no more than 20-25 grams (up to 6 teaspoons) per day for women and 30-37 grams (up to 9 teaspoons) per day for men.
- Gluten Free Deception – The FDA passed new regulation in 2013 to make gluten free compliance more direct, but it still allows food labeled gluten-free to contain less 20 parts per million or less of gluten. Is this a major issue? No. But it is another indicator that we need to check labels diligently. Gluten can show up in seemingly naturally gluten free foods. Gluten is in soup, lunch meats/cold cuts, soy sauce. Look out for labels with the terms: starch, modified food starch, hydrolyzed vegetable protein (HVP), hydrolyzed plant protein (HPP), texturized vegetable protein (TVP), binders, fillers, excipients, extenders, malt, and natural flavorings, all of which may indicate the presence of gluten.
- Ingredients first, nutritional value second – The best (and quickest) rule of thumb, is to read the ingredient label first. If the product passes the ingredient test, then you can move on to the nutritional content. This method weeds out products that you shouldn’t even be considering purchasing in the first place. The order of the ingredients is meaningful, as items must be listed by the predominance in the product. For example, if sugar is the first or second ingredient, this is a major indicator of lots of added sugars. Your ingredient list should also be easy to read, you should not have to decipher the ingredients because they sound like scientific names. An ingredient list should be short, you shouldn’t be reading a paragraph. Typically, when a product has more than 10 ingredients, that’s when you will start to find additives, preservatives, and unhealthy fats.
- Organic, Non-GMO, All Natural, and other claims – The only true organic label is the USDA Organic Seal. Other organic labels are labels that can indicate organic ingredients were used, but the product is not officially certified as organic. The term “Natural” is one of the most confusing and least useful product terms. The only exclusion for a product to be considered natural is that it cannot contain added color, heavy processing, or artificial ingredients. Most of the time, these “natural” products still contain synthetic ingredients and the labeling is unethical. Also, these regulations only apply to foods – so our “natural” body care products are not regulated for this whatsoever. Currently, only foods labeled with the USDA Organic Seal cannot, by law, contain genetically modified ingredients, but there is no protection from GMO contamination during processing. There is a Non-GMO Project Verfied Seal, created by an independent collective, which goes through verification by the Project and not by the FDA, but again this too does not protect from processing contamination. It does show that some companies do respect and care about consumer choice and are starting to make efforts to offer non GMO products.
- Fats – Not all fats are created equal. In fact, good fats are imperative to good health and necessary for weight loss. You wouldn’t know from looking blindly at a food label which you should eat and which are detrimental to your health. Your best rule of thumb is to choose foods low in saturated fats and containing zero trans fats. Foods containing reasonable amounts of monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats contain more nutrients and are more calorie dense. Remember this, just because a product label says it’s trans fat free, doesn’t mean that it is. The FDA allows food manufacturer’s to claim zero trans fat as long as there is less than half a gram per serving!! You could be consuming trans fat more often than you think…to avoid this trickery, look out for trans fat leading word, “partially hydrogenated…”, this is your indicator NOT to buy.
- Meats – As a consumer, you will find several appealing terms on meat packaging. In a time of mass produced meats and factory farms, can we really trust our source? I advocate for free range, cage free, and organic products, but even I have to specify. Your best source for this is from a local farmer, farmer’s market, or trusted butcher (like Lindy & Grundy here in L.A.). The term “Free Range” can be found on eggs, poultry, red meats, and even dairy, but it is only regulated on poultry and it still doesn’t mean much. For a producer to use the label legally, they simply need to allow the animal “access to the outside”. I prefer “Cage Free” eggs, but this term is also misleading on any other poultry or meat products. Most animals are rarely caged during their life, but that does not mean they aren’t in overcrowded feeding lots. I advocate for “Grass Fed” and organic meats only. The Grass Fed label requires that the animal is fed a minimum of 80% grass, pasture, or forage. This does not regulate the other 20% and it does not maintain that any other special care has been given to the animal. I recommend looking for the AGA label (American GrassFed Association) as this collective of farms has even stricter regulations that also ensure their livestock has never received hormones or antibiotics and are also free range. Again, this is why finding a trusted local source for your grass fed meat is even more important! I stand by my recommendation for buying certified organic meats. This is a USDA monitored process that verifies the animal has NEVER been given hormones or antibiotics. Certified Organic also ensures their feed is pesticide and fertilizer free. In addition, certified organic meats are processed in separate facilities to prevent contamination. This is one of your safest bets when purchasing meat.
Although the FDA is improving regulations on food labels to better protect the consumers, it is still up to us to take control of our choices and become informed. The more you are eating whole, raw, label free foods – the better health you can expect! I would love to know, how do you make better choices for your family when shopping? Do you have any tips you use to decode those confusing labels? Share with us in the comments below.
I’m always on the lookout for information on reading labels for healthy living and have found a great resource for reading labels on the website TheGraciousPantry.com, you can click to read more here.