Tuesday, September 6, 2011

How to Scan a Food Label

Call me a geek, but I used to love to hang out in the grocery store reading labels.  And although it takes time (and good eyesight!), there are some guidelines you can follow that will make the process quick and painless and will help you choose the best foods for your family.  

For much of what’s listed below, rather than go into the details about the number of grams/day of nutrients in the item or what we need per day, I’ve focused more on the relative amounts along with the ingredients.   I will usually do a quick scan of foods to look at them this way first.  If they make it through the first round, then I will give them a more thorough scrutiny…

To preface what is listed here, by far, the best food choices are those that don’t have labels.  Fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains and organic animal products that are bought fresh and combined into simple meals free from many of the ingredients listed on boxes, bags, cans, and jars is the best way to go for maintaining health…

Ignore what the front of the package says and look at the nutrition data on the back.  Many products promise to be all-natural or whole-grain or low fat, etc., but that doesn’t tell the whole story.   For example, if the first ingredient listed in a loaf of wheat bread is enriched wheat flour, it is not a true whole-grain product. 

Notice the serving size when looking at calories.   A pint of Haagen Dazs ice cream may seem small to you, but with four servings at ~250-300 calories per serving, there’s over 1000 calories that can easily be consumed in a sitting.  In addition, since a food labeled “low calorie” has to have a maximum of 40 calories per serving, this makes the serving size relevant.

Check the Sodium.  We should all be restricting our sodium to 2300 mg per day - that’s less than one teaspoon of salt; therefore, check the sodium content per serving to ensure you’re not getting too much.  Many canned foods like soups, pastas, and vegetables will often have very high levels of sodium.  The best way to avoid this is to not eat them. 

Where’s the Fat Coming From?  Look at the total fat per serving as well as the breakdown of types of fats.  Then, scan the ingredients list to see exactly what fats are included.  If the fat content comes from all polyunsaturated fats like corn and vegetable or soybean oil, avoid these products.   Avoid products with hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oils/fats as well.   Getting back to our pint of Haagen Dazs, which will contain a very high amount of saturated fat and cholesterol per serving.  These are the foods that are meant as occasional treats.

Carbohydrates Take Many Forms.  The label should have this category broken down into dietary fiber and sugars and some have a value for other carbohydrates that include starches. Does the breakdown of carbohydrates list them mostly as sugar? Then it’s probably best to leave this on the shelf.   You can also check the ingredients list for what types and where in the list the sugars fall.   There are dozens of names for sugar, including high fructose corn syrup, sucrose, and dextrose, to name only a few.

% RDA.  This is per serving based on a 2,000 calorie/day diet and is not a complete list.  Ironically, my guess would be that this list would be infinitely longer in a serving of whole food, since we know that there are far more “nutrients” in real, whole foods–many that have still not been identified and many of them work in concert with one another when consumed in the context of whole food.   This is one of the primary reasons to eat a whole-foods diet.  It’s far better for us than we even yet understand.  As I’ve moved more into a whole foods diet, I’ve also noticed that I largely ignore this section of the food label.

Ingredients list.  As I mentioned above, the best foods for your body don’t come with labels.  If a food has a laundry list of ingredients that you can barely pronounce, it’s best to walk away from it.   However, the ingredients are listed by weight in order of highest to lowest, therefore, the most prominent ingredients will appear at the beginning of the list.  So, for example, if you see enriched wheat (white) flour or some form of sugar as the first ingredients, you can be certain that that is what you’re mainly feeding your body.  

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