BECOME A FOOD PRODUCT EXPERT! HOW TO READ FOOD LABELS – THE RIGHT WAY.
An Easy Guide to Reading Food Labels
When it comes to food labels, what should we be looking for? As a registered dietitian, I receive tons of questions about nutrition facts and what to pay attention to when purchasing a food item. Let’s be real. There’s a lot of information on these food labels; it can be hard to figure out which products are healthiest, especially if we don’t know how to properly read these labels! Here are some useful tips for properly reading and analyzing food labels.
As a rule of thumb, I always suggest looking at the ingredients of a product before anything else! In case you didn’t know, the ingredient deck is located at the bottom of the nutrition label on the back of a product. Ingredients are listed in descending order; the first ingredient mentioned is the ingredient that makes up most of the product. So what kind of ingredients are we looking for? Best case scenario, a healthy food product consists of mostly whole foods, that is, food occurring in its most basic form. Whole foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, seeds, meat, poultry, and fish should appear at the top of ingredient lists. Avoid products that list cane sugar and vegetable oil as the main components of a food product. Trust me – this tip is super helpful when grocery shopping. Get reading!
KISS ADDED SUGARS GOODBYE
Have you noticed that food labels list added sugars and total sugars separately? This important feature may seem confusing at first, but it actually helps us figure out how much sugar is added to a product. Let’s break it down! “Added sugars” refers to any sugar that is not naturally found in a food. This includes cane sugar, high fructose corn syrup, maple syrup, and honey. Naturally occurring sugars found in fruits and vegetables, on the other hand, are not considered added. A great application of this concept is yogurt. All yogurt contains lactose – a naturally occurring sugar found in dairy products! However, some flavored yogurts may contain added sugars in various forms (fruit juice, cane sugar, corn syrup, etc). Check the row for “added sugars” on the nutrition label of your favorite yogurt. A safe bet is to opt for plain yogurts – this will ensure there are no added sugars!
So why do we want to limit our added sugar intake? It’s because diets high in sugar contribute to high blood glucose levels and high blood pressure, both of which increase the likelihood for weight gain as well as chronic diseases like type 2 diabetes.
LOSE YOUR FEAR OF FATS
Diet culture often convinces people that ALL fats are unhealthy. As a registered dietitian, I encourage you not to fear good sources of fat! In fact, fats provide essential nutrients such as all of the fat-soluble vitamins: A, D, E, K. These vitamins support healthy vision, skin, hair, nails, bones, and muscles! That’s a lot of important stuff! Good sources of fat to include in your diet that you might encounter on a food label include fish, eggs, avocados, nuts, seeds, olive oil, and avocado oil.
STOP COUNTING CALORIES
Calories are important, but they are certainly not everything. Trust me. The actual ingredients will matter more than the calorie count in the long run. Why? Because we need to make sure that we are getting enough nutrients in our diets, and this means consuming calories! Don’t be afraid to eat nutritious foods that are seemingly higher in calories. Nuts, for example, are definitely a high-calorie food; however, they provide us with fat-soluble vitamins and promote healthy brain function! Just be sure to implement mindful eating patterns and not over do it.
ONE SERVING SIZE DOES NOT FIT ALL
More often than not, we assume that one package of potato chips, one container of Greek yogurt, or one bottle of orange juice is one serving. Unfortunately, this is not always the case! In fact, most food products consist of more than one serving. If you eat a whole bag of potato chips that contains two servings, the nutritional info is multiplied by two for the correct intake. Lame! This is a sneaky tactic brands use to make their products seem lower in fat/sugar/calories. That’s why I recommend that you check the nutrition label for serving size and servings per container BEFORE eating or drinking something. Portion out the appropriate serving or be cognizant of serving size when taking larger portions!
ENJOY WHAT YOU EAT!
Most important, we need to nourish our bodies with nutritious foods that we enjoy! Our diets are not always perfect and that’s okay – don’t stress. Try new things or stick to your favorites. Indulge in a treat now and again. Once you have the knowledge, starting with the basics, you can make the right decisions about which foods to buy for you and your family.