When I used to pick up a packaged food item (and by packaged I mean anything that comes with a label and an ingredient list), I used to immediately look at the “nutrition facts” section. I would go straight to the serving size and the calories per serving. Calorie count was the main indication to me if a food was “healthy” or “unhealthy”.
Since I’ve learned more about food and food quality, I now have a completely different approach to reading ingredient labels and today I want to share with you some tips!
- First step is to always read the ingredient label! Skip the calorie content and nutritional facts for now and go straight to the ingredient list and ask yourself a few key questions.
- Can I recognize all these ingredients?
- If I was making this food at home, would I use all of these ingredients?
- What ingredients sound unfamiliar?
If you cannot recognize the ingredients or there are ingredients that sound strange to you, don’t trust that food manufacturers have your best interest at heart and know ingredients better than you do. Food manufacturers are (for the most part) trying to make a profit and will therefore use cheap filler ingredients whenever possible. Also, think to yourself that if you were making this meal at home, what you would use for ingredients. I can guarantee you that making a chicken stir fry wouldn’t call for over 50 ingredients (but that’s just about what a Weight Watchers frozen meal has in it!)
Also- google everything! The great thing about this day and age is we can get any information we want in seconds! If I am out shopping and I see a new product that I’m not so certain about- I google it! Good quality companies will WANT you to know how great they are, so they will usually be very upfront that they are using quality ingredients. When you have trouble finding out about a company’s ingredients or products online, you can usually tell they aren’t so great.
- Look at the number of ingredients
- If there are more than 5-6, it has most likely been heavily processed. For example, a box of rice should just contain rice, same with oatmeal, quinoa, etc. But the next time you pick up a box of crackers just look how many ingredients are in there!
- Be alert for sneaky ingredients
- High fructose corn syrup- found in most processed foods like bread, candies, flavored yogurts, salad dressings, canned vegetables and cereals
- MSG- monosodium glutamate- found in most Chinese food, chips, cookies, seasonings, frozen dinners and deli meats that has been linked to diseases.
- Trans fat- found in most margarines, chips, cracker and fast foods that is linked to heart disease.
- Common food dyes- like blue, red, yellow, etc. found in some cheeses, candies and sodas
- Hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oils- look out for canola oil, soybean oil, corn oil, or some “blended oil” of various types of these oils. These oils have been heated to such a degree that they actually become rancid and therefore dangerous for our health.
- Always check for sugar! Sugar has many different names. If you are going to have some sugar I would prefer you have maple syrup, honey, coconut sugar or real organic sugar. Never choose sugar free substitute.
- Review the nutrition panel
- Review the serving size and understand the calories per serving and the macronutrients per serving
- Look for trans fats, sugar and sodium
- Remember 4g = 1 teaspoon
- Don’t take the FDA’s recommendations for % of daily calories allotted to carbohydrates, fats, and proteins. You do not need that many carbohydrates in a day. 150-200g of carbohydrates is plenty for most people, not the 300 something that is recommended by the government who has a vested interest in grain manufacturers.
And that’s it! In summary, read everything and trust your intuition. If you don’t recognize something, trust that it is not there for health and put the product back. There are some amazing companies and products out there (like Tessame’s!) but you have to do your research even before going to the grocery store.
Thank you for reading! Any best tips you have picked up for label reading?