How to Read Food Labels

When it comes to packaged food in the supermarket or grocery store, the box doesn’t always tell the entire story. For instance, the front might read “healthy snack,” “gluten-free,” or “high in fiber,” but that doesn’t mean that what’s on the inside is actually healthy.

Sure, the snack might actually be a good source of fiber, but it could also be high in sugar, fat or contain a long list of artificial ingredients — something you won’t know until you turn the box around and read the label.

Understanding “health washing”

The propaganda on the front of the box is called health washing. Health washing is essentially a marketing tactic to better position companies and brands within the health food industry. If that’s not concerning enough, what’s happening on that back on the box is sometimes harder to wrap our heads around. It’s filled with nutrient amounts, daily requirement percentages, and a list of ingredients some of which you can’t pronounce properly.

So, what can we do to feel in control? Start by always reading the label.

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What should we look out for on food labels?

Look for ingredients that sound unfamiliar and, when you spot one, put the food back on the shelf. These ingredients tend to be additives and preservatives that are bad for our health in large quantities. If you’re not sure which ingredients are good and which are bad, take a photo of the labels on your favorite packaged foods and research the ingredients before buying that go-to snack again.

In addition to checking the ingredient list, look at your macronutrient content — protein, carbs, and fat — and then check for fiber and sugar. Here are some basic tips for each of those:

  1. Protein: If your ingredient list is free of any suspicious ingredients or artificial flavors and has some protein, that’s usually a good sign. We recommend aiming for at least 3 grams per serving. Some examples of these foods might be packaged chicken sausages, smoked tofu, canned beans and Greek yogurt. That said, the best protein sources typically don’t have food labels — for example, fresh fish, poultry, eggs or legumes.
thai_style_steamed_fish_with_couscous_protein source
  1. Carbs: After looking for protein, check for carbs. There are different kind of carbs — the healthy, complex kind and the sugary kind. Of course, we want to prioritize complex carbs that energize us without the sugar high and sugar crash. If a food has a significant amount of carbs (e.g., 50 grams or more per serving), look at the sugar content next. Again, remember that the best sources of carbs are often ones without labels like potatoes and whole grains.
  2. Sugar: If the sugar content is relatively low (e.g.. between 0 and 5 grams per serving), that’s a great sign. If it does contain sugar, check the ingredient list for what kind of sugar. Natural sugars like coconut sugar, maple syrup or honey are better options than cane sugar, corn syrup, and liquid fructose. (Read more on sugars here.)
  3. Fat: Did you know that one gram of fat has almost double the calories as one gram or protein or carbs?  This is why fat should always be consumed in moderation. If your food does have a significant amount of fat (particularly saturated or hydrogenated), consume that food as part of a balanced day. The best sources of fat are found (again) in foods without nutrition labels like avocado, nuts, and seeds or plant-based oils like coconut and olive. These fats tend to be unsaturated, healthy mono or polyunsaturated fatty acids.
  4. Fiber: A food packed with fiber is always a good choice because it makes us feel full and satisfied. Fiber also nourishes our gut bacteria and aids digestion. Just like protein, aim for at least 3 grams per serving. Most fruits and veggies are rich in fiber and, like most of the good foods mentioned above, don’t typically have nutrition labels.

Moral of the story: Choose foods with no labels

Buy whole, natural foods whenever possible. If you are reaching for something packaged, always check the ingredient list first. The best rule of thumb is the fewer ingredients, the better. Beyond the ingredient list, read the nutrition facts and check if the food has protein and complex carbs, then check for sugar and fat content — bonus points if there is fiber in there.

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