If you’re anything like me, then you know how to read, and that’s great. But reading nutrition labels on packaged foods can come with certain challenges, and that A+ from your advanced literature class 10 years ago isn’t going to be much help.
Food manufacturers know that if you’re reading the labels, then you care about nutrition, and if you care about nutrition, then you don’t want to buy things that are bad for you. However, food manufacturers often include things that are bad for you in their products. So, they try and hide them so that you’ll be tricked into thinking their products are better for you than they actually are, so you’ll buy them. Neat!
Here are a few things to pay attention to when reading labels to make sure you aren’t tricked:
- SERVING SIZE: although the FDA has attempted to standardize serving sizes, they can get pretty confusing. Manufacturers choose a somewhat arbitrary recommended amount — and not an amount that’s actually typically consumed (five triscuits? really?). They also often times put more than one serving in what looks like a single serving (very common in sports drinks, chips, even healthier chips like soy crisps). Make sure you look at what the nutritional information is actually applying to.
- TRANS FATS: a company is allowed to claim “no trans fat” and “zero trans fat” even if it does in fact have some trans fat. I DON’T GET IT EITHER. The FDA for some reason decided that if there is less than half of a gram in a serving, then it doesn’t exist. Pair that with a serving size that’s ridiculous, and all of a sudden, oops! Two grams of trans fats. Check the list of ingredients and look for “partially hydrogenated oils:” these are trans fats.
- ADDED SUGARS: there are a million different types of added sugars (I’m rounding up, here). And when manufacturers list their ingredients, the FDA requires that they be listed in order from the most prevalent to the least. So one way to make you think sugar is less of a main ingredient is to use different forms, so that each one is placed toward the end of the ingredients list. Here are types of added sugars: anhydrous dextrose, brown sugar, confectioner’s powdered sugar, corn syrup, corn syrup solids, dextrin, fructose, high-fructose corn syrup, honey, invert sugar, lactose, malt syrup, maltose, maple syrup, molasses, nectar, pancake syrup, raw sugar, sucrose, sugar, white granulated sugar, cane juice, evaporated corn sweetener, fruit juice concentrate, crystal dextrose, glucose, liquid fructose, sugar cane juice, fruit nectar. THIS IS ALL SUGAR. Whole forms of natural sugar are the best for you, like honey and maple syrup. These at lease have mineral benefits and have a little less of a glucose spike than the processed sugars.
- WHEAT: A lot of snacks and breads label themselves as “wheat” or “multi-grain” to imply that they’re healthier. This doesn’t mean anything. (Of course it doesn’t, because why would front labels that you actually SEE mean anything.) The ingredients list is how you know the quality of grains you’re getting. Wheat flour can be over-processed and refined just as much as white flour Whole wheat flour means that all parts of the grain have been used to make the flour, and it’s less refined. This is better for you, and this gives you the whole grains your body needs. You guys, the “multi-grain” pita chips from Stacy’s are basically refined white flour. Also Frito-Lay owns Stacy’s. Devastating.
Next time you’re buying packaged foods, read the damn labels. But if you really, really want to make it easy on yourself, try and reduce the amount of food that you buy that has labels. Fresh fruits and vegetables y’all. Buy them. Or, food that only has one ingredient on the label. Like, “lentils.” Or “frozen spinach.” Or “organic chicken breast.” Or “rolled oats.” Cooking with whole foods guarantees that you actually know what the eff you’re eating. You’ll feel better without all the extra sugars and over-processed ingredients and preservatives. But if you’ve gotta go packaged, just make sure you’re a smart reader. 32nd grade level! Great job!