Have you noticed lately how many products on the grocery store shelf are products I would classify as “unhealthy”, yet their packaging is screaming at you “I’m Healthy, Eat Me!” These are the products that clutter the front of their package with claims about “Trans Fat Free”, “Low Sodium”, “Fortified with Vitamin D”, “Omega-3”, “High in fiber”, etc. etc. These are all food marketing buzzwords but what do they actually mean? Are they a good indication of whether a food is healthy or not? People often ask me how I read food labels and how I determine which foods make it into my cart and which ones I gladly abandon on the grocery store shelf.
Here is my quick and dirty guide for undressing food labels. Note that this guide is specific to products that have labels. If the product does not have a food label because it is a whole food (e.g. vegetable, fruit, etc), then generally speaking, it is a healthy product.
QUICK AND DIRTY GUIDE TO UNDRESSING FOOD LABELS
STEP1: Use common sense. Many items in the store we already know are unhealthy for us. This includes the soda, deep fried potato chips, and sugary cookies. Avoid those. Remember, just because a bag of chips says it is “organic” or “trans fat free” doesn’t negate the fact that it is a deep fried potato.
STEP 2: Use skepticism. If there is a product that is screaming it is healthy, be skeptical. Don’t just read the claims on the front of a package and assume that the company has your best interests in mind. Trust me, not all of them do, I know this from first hand experience. A lot of the time their focus is on profit and not on the health of their consumers. Turn the package over and look at the nutrition label. This is where you can separate the men from the boys. By this I mean you can see the difference between the unhealthy products wearing a healthy costume and those products that actually are healthy.
STEP 3 [MOST IMPORTANT STEP]: Look at the ingredients. This is the first place I look when I turn a product over. Most people go straight to looking at how many calories there are or how many grams of fat it contains per serving. In my opinion this is less important than the ingredients. Read through the ingredient list. What do you see? My guess is you will be shocked at all the ‘crap’ companies are putting into your food. From sweeteners, artificial flavourings and colourings, food dyes, preservatives, etc. A good rule of thumb is if you can’t pronounce it, don’t eat it. You may be surprised at how many foods disappear from your cart based on this rule alone.
STEP 4: Read the nutrient breakdown table. To be honest, most of the time I skip this table. I am more concerned with looking at the ingredient list and making sure I eat whole foods than I am with counting calories and avoiding important macronutrients (fats, carbohydrates, protein). If you are one of those people who have been convinced into a no carb or no fat diet, STOP! We should never be eliminating any of the macronutrients. They are all essential in the diet. It is the type of foods within each of those categories that is important. Okay okay, I’m done with that rant, back to reading food labels. If you are going to look at this nutrient breakdown table explaining the amount and percentage of calories, carbs, proteins, fats, fiber, etc. (after you have looked at the list of ingredients), the key things to look for are:
1. Serving size. How big is the serving size? For example, if you saw something that was 50 calories per serving size, you may think that sounds pretty good. Then you read that a serving size is ½ a cookie and let’s be honest, who can eat half of a cookie! Okay, that may have been a slight exaggeration as I have yet to see a package with a serving size of ½ a cookie, but you get my point.
2. Trans fat. If it is high in trans fat, put the product back on the shelf. This stuff is toxic and we do not want to be putting it in our bodies. The one thing I will tell you is that dairy has a small amount of natural trans fat that is actually different than the man made trans fat.
3. Saturated fat. Some saturated fat in the diet is important. However, in the diet most of us are consuming today, our saturated fat intake far exceeds what it should. The ratio of saturated fat to mono or polyunsaturated fat is too big. If a product is high in saturated fat, ask yourself why? Where is that saturated fat coming from? Likely, its source is not great and it may be a product you want to avoid.
4. Sodium. Salt isn’t the only ingredient in food that drives up the sodium level. Although sodium is an essential part of our diet, many people are consuming too much of it and in the wrong forms. I’ll give you a hint, if it’s a processed food, it will likely be high in sodium and not because it contains high quality Himalayan crystal or sea salt. Next time you buy Campbell’s Chunky soup, turn it over and check out the sodium level. Prepare to be shocked.
5. Fiber. We should be getting about 25-35grams of fiber per day. If the product says high in fiber check to determine what “high in fiber” actually means to them. Is it really that high?
Note about Micronutrients on the label. At the bottom of the nutrient breakdown table, products will often list micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) that their product contains and the percentage of your Recommended Daily Intake you are obtaining. I also ignore this section because I don’t think the percentages are accurate. Here is an example illustrating why I feel this way.
EXAMPLE: The Recommended Daily Intake (RDI) of Vitamin D for anyone over the age of 2, set by the Canadian Food and Drug Association is 5mcg (200IU). Therefore, if you see a package that says you are getting 100% of your Recommended Daily Intake of vitamin D, you are actually getting 200IU. I chose vitamin D as an example because recent research has been proving that the majority of us are deficient in vitamin D. This research illustrates that an adult (especially one that lives in a cold climate for a portion of the year) should actually be getting a minimum of 25mcg (1000IU) daily. This is why I believe the percentages on the package are inaccurately overinflated. If you are keener and want more information on this, including the RDI for other nutrients, you can click here to see the government food labeling guidelines.
Okay, so know you’ve got it. The quick and dirty way to maneuver through a grocery store, read food labels, and end up at the check out with a cart full foods that will fuel your body rather than fool you into thinking they are healthy.