Reading food labels is an essential part of eating well, buying smart, and caring for your health. In fact, I think this critical skill should be taught in all schools. Why? Our health is our biggest asset, and what we put in our body REALLY matters. What we DON’T put in our bodies matters just as much!
Why is reading food labels so important?
Why can’t we just choose whatever looks good or appears healthy? Because labels give us the real information we need that often gets overlooked or covered up with all the marketing that goes onto packaging.
The harsh reality is that many companies value profits over their customers’ health, even those companies who claim to be “healthy” brands. Many large corporations hire food scientists who design foods that manipulate our taste buds and brains and get us addicted. Sugar, salt, texture, color–they discover what is most appealing and addictive, and the question of nutrition is way down on their priority list (if it’s there at all).
Unfortunately, nebulous regulations allow food companies to get away with marketing unhealthy products as healthy. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) takes an “innocent until proven guilty” approach that sometimes is more like “until proven guilty loudly and many times.” And honestly, there are so many products, so many companies, and legislation moves so slowly that we’re better off relying on our own discernment to know what is healthy and safe and what isn’t.
We must ALWAYS be mindful of ingredients. Since Big Food prioritizes profit margins over our health, it’s our responsibility to educate ourselves and be stewards of our own health and the health of our kids. We can stand up to Big Food and choose not to consume a product that contains harmful chemicals, rancid seed oils, addictive added sugars, and artificial dyes and colors. By not purchasing these foods, we communicate that we are holding these companies to higher standards. We vote with our dollars for what kind of products we want to see in our stores.
Trans fats are a good example of the sluggish process from known harm to action from the FDA. According to an article on the Harvard School of Public Health, studies began speculating the safety of trans fats in the early 1980s, and by the 1990s there was overwhelming evidence that trans fats were dangerous to our health. After first requiring the substance on nutrition labels, the FDA finally banned the use of trans fats in 2015. That’s over twenty years from when we first knew these fats to be harmful until they left our food! Even more, they gave companies 3 years to remove it from the food completely!!
International food companies make different versions of the same product to sell in different countries based on each country’s regulations. So, an ingredient, additive, or chemical that is banned for health risks in the European Union, for example, may still be added to the American versions of a product.
An article from 2020 describes a handful of examples of these differing international regulations, such as with food dyes Yellow 5 and Red 40 that in the EU and UK are labeled “may have an adverse effect on activity and attention in children” but in the US do not receive any labels. Maddeningly, these dyes are used in many kid-focused products like cereals and mac and cheese to make the foods more exciting and appealing to kids. As parents and caregivers we have to be especially watchful!
The good news is that reading food labels is really a lot easier than you think! You only need to focus on these 3 things:
Usually found on the back of the product.
First, you should be able to pronounce and understand what each ingredient is. If you can’t pronounce it, or if you have no idea what the ingredient is, chances are it is not good for you. Don’t buy it. As you start to pay attention to labels and do a little of your own research, you may begin to collect a list of ingredients that are a “no.” Make sure to add the 8 industrial seed oils to the list. Organic sunflower oil sounds healthy, but it is a super processed and proinflammatory seed oil that you don’t want in your body. A few other of my nos include rapeseed oil, artificial dyes and natural and artificial flavors.
Side note: When you see an added sugar in the top 3 ingredients, call it a dessert. And don’t be fooled by foods like fruit juice concentrate or brown rice syrup. These are both forms of sugar. Desserts are ok, but be mindful of how quickly the added sugar adds up.
Some companies, like Lovebird Cereal, are actually choosing to list ingredients on the front of the package! They value our health and have nothing to hide when it comes to the ingredients they use. I dare our more popular brands to do the same!
2. Serving Size
Found on the back of the product in the nutrition box.
This is important because some companies will list a serving size as only half of a bar, half of a drink, or ⅓ of a container of yogurt. This means that you may have to do some math. When you look at the amount of sugar in the product, you will have to double or triple it, respectively, if you eat the whole thing. Tricky right!?
3. Total Sugar Content and Added Sugar
Found on the back of the product in the nutrition box.
Total sugar is the total amount of sugar, both natural and added, in one serving size. Listed below the “total sugar” is the “added sugar.” Subtract the added sugar from total to know how much “natural sugar” exists in a product.
Natural sugar is sugar that occurs naturally from fruit, dairy, and other foods. Added sugar are sugars that are added to the food to make it taste sweeter. Some common added sugars include the following: honey, maple syrup, organic brown rice syrup, agave, high fructose corn syrup, and fruit juice concentrates. In fact, there are over 200 names for added sugar. Some names of added sugar tend to sound healthier like brown rice syrup, coconut sugar, and agave syrup. Some names don’t sound like sugar at all such as maltodextrin and saccharose. (Anything that ends in the suffix “-ose” is a sugar.) Nevertheless these are all sugar and behave in the body the same dangerous way. In addition, some of these sugars haven’t even been studied in kids. For more information on sugar, see our resource guide on low calorie sweeteners.
The suggested daily maximum of added sugar for kids is 25g (6 teaspoons). Some experts (Sugarproof) say it should be even lower, based on your child’s age. This is critical so we must keep track and steer away from added sugar when possible.
You can ignore the following 4 elements. They are distractions and not important in informing your decision on whether a food is healthy:
Obesity rates in the 1950s was about 10%. Our grandparents didn’t count calories, and they were healthy. If we’re eating a whole food, nutrient dense diet, there is no need to count calories. In fact, be weary of doctors and dieticians that still advocate for this. The whole “calorie in, calorie out myth needs to go away too! In the absence of disease, our body signals when we are hungry and when we are full. Contrary to what many believe, obese people are hungry not because they are calorie deficient; rather, they are nutrient deficient. A person may be eating more calories than is recommended but getting those calories from food products like soda, desserts, and fast food, which don’t provide the full array of nutrients our bodies need.
2. Percent Daily Values
This one isn’t as important either. Same as above, if you are eating a whole food and nutrient dense diet, then likely you will be getting all the nutrients that you need. If you know that you are deficient in a certain mineral, such as iron, my advice is to find good whole food sources of that vitamin or mineral and use food as medicine! If that doesn’t work, seek a functional medicine provider. They don’t necessarily have to be a medical doctor.
3. No Cholesterol
This is one of Tarek’s biggest pet peeves. It means absolutely nothing. Cholesterol is so important for our well being that our bodies will make it if we don’t get enough of it. The old myth that a particular food, such as egg yolks, “has too much cholesterol,” is thoroughly debunked. There is absolutely no relationship between cholesterol in food and our blood cholesterol numbers. In fact, our brains and hormones NEED cholesterol. It isn’t surprising that many studies link statins to dementia! When you lower your cholesterol, your brain can suffer.
4. Any marketing on the box that sounds “healthy”
Marketing is just that: marketing. It’s meant to help sell the product, not necessarily inform you about the product’s real effects and ingredients. It’s helpful to recognize marketing as separate from nutritional information. These phrases are usually “buzz words” that are intended to make you associate the product with other healthy activities and foods. They are not often regulated by the FDA.
These phrases include: multigrain, whole grain, all natural, vegan, low calorie, low sodium, heart healthy, cholesterol free, fat free, low or reduced fat, fortified, source of fiber, sea salt, organic, doctor preferred, etc.
Beware of “healthy” pictures that give the illusion of health, such as fruit, vegetables, honey, forests, nature, etc. These images, like the phrases, are meant to give an impression of health without necessarily representing the real product.
One of my biggest pet peeves is the phrase “Made with olive oil” Then when you look at the ingredients, you see that canola oil is the first ingredient (and therefore most prevalent) and olive oil is way down at the bottom of the list. If they put a tiny splash in the product, they can market it on the front.
This box claims: “Can help lower cholesterol,” “gluten free,” and “naturally flavored.” But when we look at what matters: one serving has 12 grams of added sugar (from plain sugar, honey, and brown sugar syrup). That’s about half of the daily maximum!
The mixed-berry granola bar by Made Good is deceptive too. The box touts “nutrients from vegetables,” “gluten free,” and “vegan.” Not to mention, you can find this brand in stores like Whole Foods (so it must be healthy right?!?). The answer, more and more these days, is no.
While this product contains organic ingredients and vegetable extracts (though how much is even alive and beneficial after the processing? I’d rather just eat a carrot.) It also contains many different forms of sugar, including mostly added sugars. In this tiny bar, we have already met 20% of our daily recommended intake for sugar.
For bars like this, I prefer to see natural sugar as a sweetener, such as dates or fruit. The good thing is that more and more companies are creating better products! And you can always toss some almonds, sunflower seeds, and dried fruits in a jar and call it a day.
In summary, pay attention to sugar content, watch out for sneaky serving sizes and misleading marketing, and always read the ingredients. Have you spotted any ridiculous marketing claims? Send them our way! You’ll have a chance to win a free copy of My SuperHero Foods.