4 Essential Tips for Navigating Nutrition Labels
Walk down the aisle of any grocery store and you’re bombarded by brightly colored packaging and nutrition labels making all sorts of health claims. From words like “all natural” and “low-fat” to long ingredient lists, it can be difficult for consumers to make sense of the nutrition information provided on the packaging. Here at Own Your Eating we want to help you see through the marketing gimmicks and learn to make informed choices you can feel confident about. Read on for some tips to becoming a more savvy food consumer.
1. Beware of Misleading Marketing
First rule I abide by: claims on the front of packages should be taken with a grain of salt. They are marketing tactics put in place by the food industry to get us to buy their products. After all, they want to make money! The most over used and least understood term on the market has got to be “natural”. What does “all natural” really mean anyway ? For many of us “all natural” is probably synonymous with meaning “healthy”, but read on and you’ll learn that isn’t the case.
It seems like even the FDA isn’t exactly sure what “all natural” truly defines. Historically the FDA has “considered the term to mean that nothing artificial or synthetic (including all color additives regardless of source) has been included in, or has been added to, a food that would not normally be expected to be in that food“. However, this does not take into account production methods such as the use of pesticides, pasteurization or any nutritional health benefits . So, it’s about as clear as mud in terms of whether something marked “natural” actually means it’s good for you.
We’ve seen this happen with other words too like “high protein” or the food company simply making a point of how many grams of protein there in their product. Take Lenny’s and Larry’s cookies for example. They market their cookies emphasizing the amount of protein they contain along with other symbols to show how this food can be enjoyed by any food conscious consumer with specific dietary preferences. But take a look at the ingredients on the back and other than some different types of plant protein, (wheat gluten, pea protein & rice protein isolate) the main ingredients don’t massively differ from any other cookie (compare to Oreos nutrition label below).
Not only is the ingredient list long (not usually a good indicator of quality) but can you actually picture what these ingredients look like? No, which typically means these ingredients are subject to heavy processing. As you can see, just half this cookie (1 cookie is 2 servings) contains 14 grams of sugar. So that’s a whopping 28 grams of sugar for the whole cookie! But you were probably so distracted by the fact that it’s vegan, contains a decent serving of protein and fiber, is non GMO etc etc. that you didn’t really notice that this cookie is essentially void of nutrients. It’s heavy on the macros but empty on the micros.
With all this in mind, I always suggest avoiding being influenced by any marketing messages on the front of packaging and divert your attention immediately to the back and specifically at the ingredient list.
2. Read the List of Ingredients
As well as looking at the nutrition facts panel (where you’ll find the macronutrients & some vitamin quantities listed), you’ll want to read through the list of ingredients. The items are listed in order of relative quantity so you want to focus on the first couple ingredients. Ideally these should be whole foods or at least minimally processed items, not sugar, processed grains or vegetable oils . Also beware of ingredients you don’t recognize or can’t pronounce, this can be a sign the food is highly processed and not a healthy choice.
Let’s look at an example. Below are two ingredients lists , .
B: RX Bars
INGREDIENTS: Dates, Dried Egg Whites, Cashews, Almonds, Chocolate, Cocoa, Natural Flavors, Sea Salt.
The Oreos are primarily made of unbleached enriched wheat flour (a processed grain that is usually heavily treated with pesticides) and sugar. The RX bars are primarily composed of dates and dried egg whites. Just based on those first two ingredients in those ingredients lists, which one do you think is going to be a healthier choice?
3. Beware of Sugar Aliases
Take note, as consumers are becoming more savvy shoppers, food companies are becoming sneakier. Many items that are made up mostly of sugar, do not list sugar as the first ingredient. But how can they do that!? Because they have used multiple different forms of sugar in manufacturing the product and thus can list each type of sugar individually. So instead of including 60% sucrose (table sugar) you may have 30% sucrose and 30% high fructose corn syrup. Make sense?
Consider the first ingredient list above. Sugar and high fructose corn syrup are both listed ingredients. It could be possible that if the two were combined it would become the #1 ingredient.
Sugar is quite sneaky indeed. You can find it hiding behind all kinds of different aliases including sucrose, high fructose corn syrup, agave nectar, caramel, demerara sugar, date sugar, fruit juice, molasses, honey, maple syrup, brown rice syrup, dextrin, ethyl maltol, malt syrup, maltodextrin, coconut sugar and carob syrup to name just a few. If you’re interested, check out University of California’s Sugar science site for a more complete list .
4. How Many Servings?
After the ingredients the second place I will look is the nutrition label. I like to take a look at the macro break down (protein, carbohydrates and fats) as well as the fiber content and added sugar . But often overlooked is the serving size. This is another place the food industry could be trying to trick us. The calories might look reasonable on that pint of ice cream until you realize they are only for ¼ of the pint! Many snack foods that look and feel like a single serving can often be split up into 2 or more servings on the nutrition facts to make it seem healthier.
A pint of ice cream is a great example as they are often split into 4 servings. Another sneaky serving size – granola and cereal! Paying attention to the serving size and weighing out one serving of cereal is mind blowing for someone like me who grew up eating it on the regular. I used to eat big bowls of Honey Bunches of Oats and Frosted Flakes and learning that the nutrition label is only for ¾ a cup was shocking. This is a great example of how learning to weigh and measure food can help teach us a lot about the foods we eat.
The food and nutrition landscape is not an easy one to navigate. Of course, some of the best things to buy often come with no packaging at all (hello fruits and veggies)! But when you do buy packaged goods remember, the food industry doesn’t always value consumer health as their top priority. So as a consumer you need to be savvy, informed and do your research. Have you seen any sneaky food claims? Have a question about how to navigate food labels? Or just want more articles like this? Let us know in the comments below!
For more information about the fundamentals of sound nutrition practices and good health, make sure you check out our free guide!