Decoding Confusing Food Labels
One of my biggest pet peeves is deceptive food labeling. For example: a single bottle or can of a beverage often lists multiple servings. What are all these weird-sounding ingredients? And why is this list so ridiculously long anyway? All great questions! To avoid foods that contribute to heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and obesity, you need to be savvy about nutrition facts. Here are some basics to help you decode those confusing food labels:
Don’t be fooled by serving sizes.
Picture this: You walk into a convenience store to pick up a drink and walk out with what you’re certain is a single-serving beverage. Then after chugging it down, you look at the label and realize it says the bottle contains two servings, or even worse, two and a half. Really? So you’ve just consumed almost 300 calories in liquid. Awesome. Here’s the takeaway: Always look at the number of servings per container on the label first, then the number of calories per serving. And remember, all the nutrition information on a label refers to one serving size.
Break down an ingredients list at a glance.
Ingredients lists reveal a ton about whether a product is garbage or not. And you could spend a good chunk of time deciphering one of these bad boys. Fortunately, it only takes about 10 seconds (or less) to figure out if something is worth adding to your shopping cart or leaving on the shelf. First, you want to see a short ingredients list— five items or less is ideal. If there’s a huge block of text that makes up the ingredients, the food is probably filled with fattening, artificial crap like fake flavors, colors, fats, sugars etc. Also, the first three ingredients are the most important because the product will contain the highest amount of its top few ingredients, so make sure they’re quality. Finally, if a product has too many ingredients that are hard to pronounce, set it back down and walk away.
Read between the lines of product descriptions.
Food marketers like to slap great-sounding adjectives like “all natural” onto products to make them more appealing to consumers. The truth is a lot of it is BS. Watch out for these deceptive descriptors:
- “All natural” – This is marketing speak, pure and simple. There is no regulatory meaning behind the term natural, unlike something labeled certified organic. So although it may sound like the food is wholesome and good for you, it may be just the opposite. Check for yourself by reading the nutritional information.
- “Fortified” – Many processed foods are “fortified” with vitamins and minerals. But often cheap versions of those ingredients are used instead of the healthier ones. For example, a package of crackers fortified with fiber may actually contain inulin, a low-quality processed fiber that doesn’t give you the same nutrition and feeling of fullness as whole-grain fiber does. Similarly, products fortified with omega-3 fatty acids may have the less-potent ALA (alpha-linolenic acid). You’ll get much more nutritional bang for your buck with the omega-3s that come from fish: EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid).
- “Fruit flavor” – You can’t assume that strawberry-flavored breakfast bar is really made with strawberries. Fruit flavoring is usually a nice way of saying it’s artificially produced. Check the ingredients to know for sure.
- “Gluten free” – Here’s another tricky one. With all the hype surrounding gluten-free this or that, of course a product labeled as such would be good for you, right? Not necessarily. Unless you’ve been diagnosed with celiac disease (an autoimmune disorder caused by eating gluten, a protein found in wheat, rye, and barley) or have tested positive for gluten sensitivity, you’re better off not buying these products. They usually have less fiber, are higher in calories, and cost more than their whole-wheat counterparts.
Bottom line, always inform yourself about your food. Knowledge is power. And while this may seem tedious, the good news is that once you educate yourself on a product you will know forever. Keep it clean and reap the rewards!