I talk about label reading in my nutrition classes as well as to community groups. I have had a request to share some of that information here, so here are a few of my favorite label-reading tips.
Please note that food labels will probably change in the next year or so. But, the change will be in the format of the label. An example of the proposed label is shown here. But, it still won’t be a perfect label.
Below are my current Top 5 for what to be especially aware of when reading food labels – old OR new.
1. Be aware of serving size. Just because it’s a small bag of nuts doesn’t mean the label amounts are for the whole bag. I once bought a small bag of trail mix for an easy, nutritious snack. While snacking, I noticed the label said there were 2-2/3 servings in that little bag. The label information was for 1 horribly small serving, not the whole bag. Have you noticed those big energy drink containers, like for Monster or Rockstar, have 2 servings per can? Are you going to pop the top, then only drink half?? Serving sizes on the new labels are supposed to be more realistic. We shall see.
2. Be a detective and look for Trans Fats. Just because a label says “0 grams Trans Fat” doesn’t mean there’s no trans fat. The rule is that if there is less than 0.5 grams of trans fat per serving, the food manufacturer can claim “0 grams”. If you ate more than one serving, you could have a noticeable amount of trans fat. Look at the ingredient list. Is “partially hydrogenated” oil listed? If so, there are definitely trans fats in the food.
So, what are trans fats and why are they bad? Trans fats are even worse for us than saturated animal fats. They’re made by adding hydrogen to regular polyunsaturated vegetable oil. That makes the oil stiff, more shelf-stable (it won’t go rancid for several months) and the oil has a higher smoke point so it doesn’t break down easily when frying foods. Health-wise, these transformed fats create high levels of tissue inflammation and can lead to heart disease, cancer and other health problems.
3. Look for low %DV. Those are the percentages listed next to the nutrients on the label. The actual name is “Percent Daily Value”. Their purpose is to allow you to easily compare nutrients and know how one serving of the food fits into the diet allowance for a person on a 2,000 calorie/day diet. If a label says 75% next to Saturated Fat, that means one serving of that food supplies 75% of all the saturated fat allowed for the day for a person on a 2,000 Calorie/day diet. Ouch!!
4. Try to Read the Ingredients. If there are ingredients you wouldn’t usually use in your kitchen, put it back on the shelf. Can’t read some of those ingredient names? Put it back on the shelf. Did you know that maltodextrin and dextrose are made from genetically modified corn? And, I’m sure you’d never add a little antifreeze (propylene glycol) to your food. There are many ingredients that are allowed in our food here in the US that are banned in Europe. Ingredients are always listed with what weighs the most at the top of the ingredient list, then the list goes in descending order by weight. Those complicated-sounding chemicals are put in food primarily so it will last longer on the shelf – primarily a benefit for the manufacturer.
5. Think about how processed the food might be. Have you heard about pink slime added to ground beef? Or, did you know the stevia in many products (like Truvia) is really just a fragment of the stevia plant that’s been put through a many-step process and is no longer really stevia? (The ingredient list on the Truvia package lists another sugar substitute as the #1, most prominent, ingredient.) This video about pink slime is one I often show in class. Click here for Jamie Oliver’s video. As Jamie Oliver states, the labels don’t require processes or the chemicals involved in those processes to be put on our food labels.
Have you really looked at what’s in this package of truvia? It’s mainly erythritol – with a little stevia leaf extract.
We should use packaged foods sparingly. Variety and Moderation are key when eating any kind of food.
The bottom line with packaged foods is: