How to Read Food Labels

Risa Groux, CN
 | Published: 
June 18, 2019

The law requires that a food’s ingredients be listed on its label. Ingredients appear in descending order by weight: the one that weighs the most is listed first the one that weighs the least is last, and so on. Ingredients that make up less than 2 percent of the food by weight are also listed at the end. These may include flavor enhancers, stabilizers, and other chemical agents. Just because they are listed at the end, however, doesn’t make them any less dangerous.

First Step is Quality

Read the ingredient list to determine if the ingredients are whole foods and not chemicals.  The rule of thumb is if you don’t have an ingredient in your pantry, you should probably not be eating that food.  

Nutrition Next

Once you’re satisfied that the ingredients are healthy enough, then look for the following on the package:

  1. Calories: Processed food, by its nature, is filled with sugar and/or other empty calories, providing little or no nutritional value. If calories are your big focus, be mindful of the serving size. Most of your daily calorie intake should come from whole foods. I place value more on quality than I do quantity.  
  2. Fat: The type of fat is more important than the amount. The term “partially hydrogenated” is just another way to say “trans fat,” the unhealthiest type of fat. This unnatural form of fat has been proven to lead to heart disease, colon cancer, and diabetes. Saturated fat is not the devil but it depends what the source is.  Look for cold pressed oils from avocado, coconut, MCT, flax, nut, and extra virgin olive,    
  3. Sodium: Natural or not, sodium is found in most packaged foods. Sodium can cause water retention and affect blood pressure, raising your risk of stroke. Our recommendation is to limit your daily intake to 1,500 milligrams (mg) from all sources, which is far less than the FDA’s current recommended maximum of 2,400 milligrams. You can easily exceed both our and the FDA’s recommended limits without ever using a saltshaker if you don’t keep track of the sodium in the processed foods you eat.
  4. Fiber: Fiber is the indigestible portion of carbohydrates. Found naturally in plant foods (vegetables, fruit, beans, nuts, seeds, and whole grains), fiber is a key nutrient in a daily diet. Eating fiber-rich foods not only helps to regulate your digestive system and blood sugar levels but also is a low-calorie way to fill your tummy and keep you satisfied. The average diet provides only about 12 grams of fiber each day, but female adults should consume35 grams, and males, 38 grams daily. The higher the amount you find in a single food, the better!  
  5. Sugar: Junk food is synonymous with sugar, and since we’re all aware of the health implications of sugar, here are some simple rules about the sweet stuff: avoid high-fructose corn syrup; always combine sugar (or any form of carbohydrate) with some protein (or a lot of fiber) to prevent spikes in your blood sugar, and look for hidden sources of sugar on food labels. Cane juice, fruit juice concentrate, and corn syrup are just a few of the many formsof sugar found in food products.  We really want to keep the total daily sugar intake to less than 25 grams.  That is including fruit sources.  This adds up quickly so keep a close eye on this.  
  6. Total Carbohydrates: This is where it gets tricky.  Carbohydrates turn into sugar, plain and simple.  We really want to get this number as low when it comes to processed food. It is important to know that to calculate net carbs you must take the total carbohydrates and subtract the fiber to get the net carbs.  

Know Your Label Terms

Enriched: This means that a food has had certain nutrients removed, then re‑added. An example is adding bran back into refined flour products to increase the fiber content. The question we really need to ask is: “Why did they take it out in the first place?” Typically, it’s to prolong the shelf life of a food.

Fat-free: The product contains less than 0.5 grams of fat per serving.

Fortified: When a nutrient has been added to a food that doesn’t contain it naturally, the food is said to be fortified. Most of us could use the additional nutrients, but this is done mainly to prevent deficiency diseases such as pellagra or beriberi in those who eat a diet with poor nutritional value.

Lite or light: This means that the product contains one-third of the calories or half (or less) the fat of the full-fat version; or half the sodium (or less) of the full-salt version if it states “Lite in sodium.” Compare the “light/lite” product with the regular product to see the difference. Sometimes chemicals such as olestra, an artificial fat substitute, are added to reduce the calories of the product. You have to decide if possible side effects of the additive— which can include abdominal cramping and loose stools—offset the benefit of reduced calories.

Low cholesterol: The product contains 20 milligrams or less of cholesterol, and 2 grams or less of saturated fat per serving. However, it does not mean that the product is low in fat, although it must not contain more than 13 grams of fat.Low-fat: The product contains no more than 3 grams of fat per serving.

Made with organic ingredients: This label guarantees that at least 70 percent of a product’s ingredients are organic (refer to the term “organic” in this section for a definition). Products containing less than 70 percent organic ingredients cannot make any claims on the front label but may list the organic ingredients on the back panel.

No added sugar: This sounds good, but the product may already contain sugar naturally.

No salt added: While no salt has been added, it doesn’t mean that other sodium sources have not been added, or that a product isn’t naturally high in sodium.

Organic: This word tells you that the food or product is guaranteed to contain at least 95 percent organic ingredients measured by weight. Any nonorganic ingredients, up to a maximum of 5 percent, must still receive approval from the US Department of Agriculture’s National Organic Program (NOP), which develops and administers national labeling standards. These products may display the USDA Organic seal.  

100 percent organic: This means that a product is made with 100 percent organic ingredients. This is the highest standard of organic, and you can rest assured that these products are, in fact, completely organic.

Reduced or less fat: The product has at least 25 percent less fat than the full-fat product.

Salt free: Check the Nutrition Facts panel to determine the amount of sodium per serving, and look for sodium sources other than salt, such as MSG.

Sugar free: This means that a food can contain up to 0.5 grams of sugar per serving. Second, it can contain artificial sweeteners such as aspartame, sucralose (Splenda), and others that are also harmful.

New Label Laws

As of 2018 there are a few new rules for nutrition labels on packaged foods.  The government has given companies a few years to implement these changes which should be in place by 2021.  

  1. The number of serving per container and serving size are in larger and/or bolder font.  The portion size itself has also been adjusted for slightly larger (and realistic)consumption.
  2. Calories will now be bolder.
  3. Calories from fat has been removed because they are catching on that the type of fat is more important than the amount.  
  4. Added sugars in grams and as a percent of daily value (%DV) is now required on the label.  This includes all added sugars, syrups, honey, concentrated fruit or vegetable juices.
  5. Nutrients such as vitamin D and potassium are now requited. Vitamins A and C are no longer required. In addition, the amount and percent must be listed for vitamin D, calcium, iron and potassium.  

In conclusion, it is critically important to know what you are putting into your body, on your body or what products you use to clean your clothes and home.  We always want to decrease our toxic load by eating more foods from the farm that don’t have a label, than foods from a factory.  If it is made with clean ingredients but still made in a factory, it is still processed food.

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