Understanding How To Read Food Nutrition Labels
WARNING: Not Understanding How To Read Food Nutrition Labels Can Kill You!
Nutrition labels are on almost everything we eat. They contain nearly all you need to know about your food. And they can be some of the most deceptive and misunderstood pieces of information out there.
by Greg Montoya
What Matters And What Doesn’t
Here’s a quick review on how to properly read nutrition labels. What everyone looks at, and what most people miss. And, most importantly, what combining different parts of a label can mean for your health.
Most people barely give food labels a second thought, so hopefully this quick article will encourage you to pay more attention to what you’re putting into your body. And what big food companies are trying to sneak past you, as well!
Without doubt, the ingredients are the most important thing on a nutrition label. Once you are properly educated, they are the easiest to interpret.
Here’s a few general guidelines to follow:
- Ingredients are listed from most prevalent to least. Consequently, you want the first few ingredients to be what you most want in the food. Example: Banana bread should have bananas near the top. If not, something is wrong.
- Look for the same thing listed many times. This is usually a problem for sugar. Example: Sugar can be listed as high fructose corn syrup, maple syrup, glucose, sucrose, honey, the list goes on. If you see multiple listings for sugar, you should be concerned and it may be wise to pass on the food item.
- Make sure a food product is what it purports to be. Example, lots of products that claim to be whole wheat are far from it. They add a little whole wheat for color—but actually have the bulk of their nutrition come from refined GMO grains (the exact opposite of a healthy whole wheat). Example: Wraps are especially prone to this problem. That “healthy” spinach wrap is usually a lot of refined white flour, some food coloring, and just enough spinach to hold up in court. Don’t take a name at its word—check the ingredients to make sure it’s what it claims to be.
- Be suspicious of words you can’t pronounce. Some are perfectly fine. Many weird-sounding gums are used as fixing agents, or natural preservatives, and are perfectly safe. Example: Both propylene glycol alginate and carrageenan are thickeners derived from seaweed. But lots of other complex words, like olestra (a fat substitute which can cause diarrhea) or butyl hydroxytoluene/BHT (possibly carcinogenic), disguise dangerous, unhealthy additives. Some are used as flavor enhancers and others as preservatives. In some cases, we’re literally eating embalming agents for food!
Do Your Research
When in doubt, use your smart phone and look up ingredients you don’t recognize. A quick Google search will tell you if the additive is dangerous or not.
There’s so much more to consider with nutrition labels than the list of ingredients…
When most people look at the nutritional content, they focus on calories. We’ve been taught to think of calories as the be-all end-all of nutrition. The more calories, the worse a food is for us. But that’s not necessarily true…
The fact is, we need calories to survive. Too many can affect our waistlines, true—but a calorie-dense food isn’t necessarily bad for us.
More important is where those calories come from:
- Remember a healthy plate should be made up of low glycemic fruits and vegetables, rich in nutrients, low in calories.
- Around a quarter of our plate should be healthy, non GMO, whole grains such as quinoa—the type of carbohydrates our body uses for energy during the day.
- A quarter of our plate should be made up of healthy proteins such as organic chicken, wild salmon, organic eggs, beans, sprouts, etc. These are the building blocks for muscle health and repair.
Finding A Balance
With this in mind, think about which foods you’ll be combining in your meals, and try to find the right balance. Example: A brown rice dish is overloaded with carbohydrates. It would make an awful, insulin spike causing, meal by itself. But combined with a healthy portion of protein and lots of veggies, it’s fine.
Pay attention to the carbs and proteins in any food you buy. They won’t make up a quarter of the calories you take in—both are much more calorie-dense than vegetables, which provide essential nutrients in small doses.
And pay special attention to fat content. We NEED plenty of good fat, such as organic coconut oil, avocado, olive oil, whole raw butter, egg yolks, etc., to be healthy as well. Example: A natural peanut butter high in fat is fine—peanuts are high in natural “good” fats. While a potato chip, high in fat, cooked in canola oil, is not. You’re eating unhealthy, fried food then “bad fats.” Hydrogenated oil/fat (trans fats) should be avoided completely. These fats are one of the leading causes of heart disease and can be deadly!
The Healthiest Food Has No Label
Finally, the best nutrition label is one that isn’t there. If you find a food without a label, you’re likely eating a whole, unprocessed food. The way God intended food to be. When is the last time you saw a nutrition label attached to a tomato, apple or broccoli?
It’s virtually impossible to completely avoid processed foods in today’s world. So, the more whole foods you eat—consisting mostly of fruits, vegetables, healthy meats and nuts—the better. True whole foods don’t require nutrition labels. Again, the more label-free foods you eat, the better your health will be. This is important to remember the next time you’re checking ingredient labels. Skip the labels and go straight to the whole foods. Your body will thank you!