I’m old enough to remember when there wasn’t a mandatory food label. It was a time of much confusion. We didn’t always know how many calories we were eating, or how many sugar alcohols we consumed. It was a dark time in history.
In all seriousness, the food label was one of those things that made sense. When it became a mandatory thing, and pretty much everyone was like, “YEAH! That’s a good idea. Why didn’t we do this sooner?”
The problem is, 25 years later, it’s still not perfect. Frankly, sometimes the label isn’t completely clear and can be misleading (most notably when it comes to serving size). Most importantly, many people still don’t really know how to use it to guide their food choices.
When you are cruising the grocery aisles, how often do you flip over your items to check out the nutrition labels or ingredients? I hope so! But let’s do a little review:
There are actually changes from the FDA in the pipeline aimed at updating the label to better reflect current concerns including more realistic serving sizes. Until then, use this as quick guide to help you make more informed food choices:
Nutrition information is provided for one serving of a food or beverage.
How often do you limit yourself to a ½ cup of ice cream when you’re catching up on your Netflix queue? Doesn’t seem like enough to get you through a whole episode of OITNB or Game of Thrones, but that’s a serving size. A pint of Ben and Jerry’s is actually meant for multiple servings; four, in fact.
If a serving size is a ½ cup, and you eat 1 cup, then you must double the calories, fat, sugar, and other ingredients to get an accurate estimate of how much you’ve actually eaten. So if you eat the whole pint (four servings, so you’d have to multiply by 4)… I’ll let you do the math.
Pay special attention to the amount of sugars (including carbohydrates) in one serving.
This is especially important if you have diabetes (or other health concerns) that require you to monitor sugar intake or the glycemic index of foods. At the same time, look for hidden sources of sugar or artificial sugars in the ingredients (like high fructose corn syrup, stevia, or saccharine) which can actually cause fluctuations in insulin response but don’t reflect in the carbohydrate/sugar count on the label.
Check out the amount of fat, especially saturated fat, in one serving.
Don’t get me wrong, some fats are good for you. But some fats contribute to chronic health problems. Saturated fat and trans fats are two examples of fats known to contribute to inflammation and bad cholesterol, which may lead to heart disease (among other problems). Minimize consumption of these fats, and opt instead to get more of your fats from better sources like nuts, seeds, olive oil, and avocados.
Be aware that “0” does not mean zero!
Did you know that a label can claim to be “Zero Trans Fats” but still have up to 1 gram of trans fat per serving?
For my math geek friends out there, I’m with you. This math is ridiculous. But in the food industry 0 simply means less than 5% per serving. This becomes a bigger issue when you consume multiple servings and it starts to add up.
In addition to the nutrition label, you want to take a look at the list of ingredients.
A good rule of thumb to follow: if you cannot pronounce the words that are listed in the ingredients, it’s likely a chemical worth avoiding. Now that’s not always the case. For example, I’ve seen foods fortified with vitamins and those names can be long and sinister sounding. But as Michael Pollen says, eat foods as close to their natural state as possible. The less processed, the simpler the ingredient list, the better.
Some of the items you want to avoid include:
- Preservatives including BHA, BHT, brominated products (that last one is part of a future post on thyroid)
- Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO), common in corn and soy derivatives. They won’t come out and say “these are GMO.” You can avoid these all together or look for organic and non-GMO verified on the label.
- Xanthan gum
- Hydrocarbons (pesticides PCB, DDE, DDT)
- Soy and cottonseed oil
- Dyes (e.g., yellow dye no. 5, tartrazine)
- Monosodium Glutamate (MSG), common in canned foods and Asian cooking
- Food allergens in case you or family members have a known allergy or sensitivities to peanuts, wheat, dairy, soy, or gluten etc…
In a hurry? No time to read labels?
Simple fix, avoid packaged (bag, box, or bottle) foods. Instead, stick to fresh, whole, colorful foods (e.g., fruits, veggies, nuts, seeds). Many grocery stores now have ready-made options like quinoa, bean salad, and grilled veggies and protein. There’re also many restaurants popping up with fresh, real ingredients for people on the go. And don’t forget to avoid drinking your calories and sugar- choose water, unsweetened green or herbal tea, or fresh veggie juices.
And finally – get involved!
In July of 2015 the government proposed a new nutrition information panel for food labeling. The public is invited to comment, so here’s your chance. It’s your health, don’t leave up to the feds alone. Whole you’re at it, make sure to voice your concerns about GMO labeling: http://www.fda.gov/Food/GuidanceRegulation/GuidanceDocumentsRegulatoryInformation/LabelingNutrition/ucm387533.htm