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Woman reading the label of yogurt container in the grocery store

Why reading food labels and ingredients is important

The healthiest foods to create complete meals with are ones that don't have any added ingredients, such as lean protein, fruits, and vegetables. However, if you purchase a pre-packaged item, it’s important to know what it contains.

Getting into the habit of reading ingredient lists and being able to decode common labels on pre-packaged foods can help you understand what's actually in the food you're eating so you can make the best choices.

What common ingredients are in the food we eat?

Thousands of ingredients are used in the food manufacturing process. In fact, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) maintains a list of over 3000 in its database. These ingredients are not the food itself but items used to flavor, blend, thicken, color, and preserve the food product being produced.

Some are common, like spices, baking soda, salt, vanilla, and yeast. But others are additives, preservatives, chemicals, and coloring that are in many cases unnatural and, in some cases, can be harmful to your health.

Make sure to check the serving size.

Nutrition Facts example with 3 servings per container and a serving size of 1/4 cup.

The nutritional panel on a food item lists the serving size at the top. In many cases, the serving size is much smaller than the amount in the package, which means that you could be getting twice the amount that is listed (or possibly even more). This is extremely deceiving to consumers, who may be eating two or even three servings of an item without even knowing it.

What to look for in your ingredients list

When reading an ingredient list, you should look for a "clean label," meaning that the food item contains a small list of simple ingredients that you recognize.

Another important thing to remember is that the ingredients on a label are listed according to quantity from highest to lowest. This means that the first ingredient listed is what the item contains the most of.  A good rule of thumb is to look at the first three ingredients because they usually make up the largest part of the product.

You generally want to avoid added sugar(s), preservatives, and items with long names you can't pronounce. You should also avoid unhealthy oils like corn, vegetable, canola, palm, soybean, and all hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oils.

If the first ingredients of an item include refined grains, sugar, or an unhealthy oil, it’s safe to assume that the food item is unhealthy and you would be better off leaving it on the shelf.

Ingredients to avoid.

Added sugar

Added sugar is one of the most important ingredients to avoid.

Food manufacturers know that sugar makes things taste good. And if something tastes good, you will buy more of it. Therefore, they may be sneaky about listing sugar on their ingredient label.  Here are a few ways that you might see sugar listed on an ingredient label.

The many names of sugar

  • Any item with the word “syrup,” "juice,” “malt,” or “sweetener."
  • Any item that ends in “ose” (fructose, etc.)
  • HFCS (abbreviation for High Fructose Corn Syrup)
  • Honey
  • Agave nectar
  • Molasses
  • Disaccharides
  • Maltodextrin

Artificial sweeteners

Although they have no calories, artificial sweeteners such as aspartame, sucralose, and saccharine have been shown to contribute to weight gain because they can stimulate your appetite, encourage sugar cravings, and promote fat storage.

They also trick your brain into believing you are eating a lower-calorie item, which in many cases causes you to eat more than you would have if you had known it was sweetened with sugar.

Trans fat

Food manufacturers use trans fats as a cost-effective way to increase the shelf life of their products, but they are extremely harmful to your health.

Trans fats aren’t a specific ingredient, but they can be found in ingredients like partially hydrogenated oils.

Other unhealthy oils that can contribute to trans fat intake include GMO soybean, cottonseed, or canola oil.

MSG (monosodium glutamate)

MSG is a food additive used to enhance the flavor of certain dishes. It can be found in frozen foods, snacks, and many fast foods.

Artificial colors

Some colors, like “red 40” or “yellow 6”, are easy to spot on a label. Others, such as “caramel color,” are easier to hide.

Ingredients that are banned in other countries but are still allowed in the US.

Carrageenan

Carrageenan is an additive made from seaweed and is used as a stabilizer and thickening agent. Although it may sound natural, it has no nutritional value. While it is approved by the FDA, it is banned in Europe.

Olestra (Olean)

Olestra is a chemical compound that is used as a fat substitute in many salty snacks and chips labeled as "Light” or "Fat-Free." It also, in a sense, removes essential vitamins from the body by rendering it unable to absorb them. It is banned in the UK and Canada but is still used in many foods here in the US.

BHA and BHT (Butylated Hydroxyanisole/ Butylated Hydroxytoluene)

BHA & BHT are synthetic preservatives that extend the shelf life of food products. Unfortunately, they are found in a very high majority of processed foods in the US. And, you guessed it, they are both banned in both the UK and Europe.

Misleading food claims.

Don’t trust the claims on the front of the package.

Although many food manufacturers have started making changes for the better, you still can’t trust most claims listed on the front of the package. The next time you’re at the store, take a stroll down the snack or breakfast cereal aisle. You’ll find phrases like “all-natural” and “whole grain,” as well as buzz words like “healthy,” “fat-free,” “gluten-free,” or “keto.” These terms are there to make you feel like you are making a healthy choice, but a lot of times the product is anything but healthy.

The best advice is to ignore anything on the front of the package and focus on the list of ingredients and the nutritional facts. This is where you will find everything you need to know.

The following are a few claims made on food labels that aren’t as healthy as they sound:

Light

Food with a ‘light’ label means it was processed to either reduce the amount of calories or fat. Unfortunately, ‘light’ does not equate to ‘healthy.’ And in many cases, it is only ‘light’ because of the artificial sweeteners or other ingredients it contains. 

Low-fat, fat-free and low-calorie

Foods with reduced or removed fat content typically have to add ingredients like sugar or "natural flavors" to make it taste good. When it comes to dairy products, your body needs the natural fat in the food in order to be able to process the natural sugar properly.

A ‘low-calorie’ food must have one-third fewer calories than the brand’s original product. However, this low-calorie item could still have many unhealthy or artificial ingredients.

Zero trans fat

This one is tricky! Foods that have zero trans fat in them mean that they have less than .5 grams of trans fat per serving. But be sure to check the serving size. As we mentioned above, the serving size could be small enough that the food still contains trans fat if you eat more than 1 serving.

Natural

Having a 'natural' label doesn't mean the food resembles anything natural. It simply indicates that at one point, the manufacturer worked with a natural food source like apples or rice.

Organic packaged food (not fruit / veggies)

Whether or not a food product is ‘organic’ depends on how it is grown. Foods that are labeled USDA ‘organic’ certification have specific guidelines as to the type of fertilizers, fungicides, and pesticides that can be used, which can’t be genetically modified or radiated. 

Note, just because something is organic does not mean it is healthy.

No added sugar

Foods with no sugar added could mean they are high in natural sugar.

No added sugar could also mean that a food has unhealthy sugar substitutes added. This is where reading the ingredient label comes in handy. Find out what this claim really means by reading the ingredients. (And don’t forget about all the other names for sugar listed above!)

Low-carb

Unless they are whole foods, 'low-carb' foods are still processed and could have unhealthy ingredients. For example, low-carb bread and tortillas are made with highly refined, artificial, and/or chemically altered compounds such as modified wheat starch, vital wheat gluten, and hydrogenated vegetable oils.

Gluten-free

Foods that are gluten-free are made without wheat, spelt, rye, or barley. Gluten-free foods can still be highly processed and contain added sugar or fat.

Fruit-flavored

This is another one that is tricky. Foods listed as ‘fruit-flavored’ have been chemically modified to taste like a particular fruit. It doesn't mean that they contain fruit. If you read the label fully, you will usually find this in the fine print.

In the end, it is best to choose food that is as close to its natural state as possible. Try to fill your grocery cart with fresh, whole foods. Not only is this healthier, but it is also much less expensive. A recent study showed that people who consumed processed foods in their diet regularly experienced weight gain, while those who stuck with whole foods were able to maintain or even lose weight!

Sources

This article was written by the GOLO team with facts supported by the following sources:

FDA.gov

NYTimes

Harvard Health

Healthline

Henry Ford Health

Clinical Center News

 

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