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Don’t Let Food Labels Fool You

When going grocery shopping do you take the time to read the food labels? Or perhaps like the vast majority of folks you just read the large print on the front of the packaging? The trouble is, what might look like a healthy product can reveal an entirely different story once you examine the smaller-print ingredients list. In fact, misleading labeling tricks is common practice in the food business; after all, it gets more people to buy highly processed and unhealthy products! As consumers we must not fall for this crafty advertising! To help you better understand labeling gimmicks, we put together some useful tips….

Read All the Printed Information

Most of us simply read the name of the product and the claims in large print, which could be “fat-free,” “sugar-free”, “multi-grain”, “gluten-free”, “organic” and so forth. We are usually sold on those words alone and don’t bother to examine the ingredients and nutrition facts. These front labels try to lure customers into believing that the product is healthy when they often don’t tell you the whole story. Now, many people might say that they are too busy to be reading the small print or they simply don’t care. But we should care about what we are ingesting! After all, as the famous saying goes, “we are what we eat.” Here are some useful points to remember when it comes to ingredient lists and the Nutrition facts:

  • Products are listed in order of quantity/weight (highest to lowest). This means the first three ingredients generally make up the bulk of what you are getting. If the first three items include refined grains, a type of sugar, or hydrogenated oil, then you can pretty much assume that the product is NOT healthy. Instead, go for ingredients that have whole foods listed as their first three ingredients.
  • Check the serving size! Many consumers assume the entire container is the serving size when in fact it may contain two or more servings. For example, if you have a bag of pasta and the serving size says 1 cup of pasta, this means all the nutritional information below the serving size (fats, carbohydrates, protein, sugars, fibers, etc.,) apply strictly to the 1 cup of pasta. Remember, many products also post unrealistically small sizes which is far less than what you may be eating in one go. So make sure to know the exact serving size which will correspond to the nutritional facts listed.
  • Check the calories per serving! Some people mistake the number of calories per serving for the entire calorie count of the product. So please check how many servings they are referring to exactly.
  • Less ingredients the better! An ingredient list that is longer than two or three lines suggests that the product is highly processed. Try to stick to products with ingredients you can count on one hand (5 ingredient rule). A second tip: avoid it if you can’t pronounce it!
  • Know the Daily Value (DV) and use it as a guide. The DV listed with the nutrition facts refers to the amounts of nutrients to consume or not to exceed per day. On the food package it normally gives you the percentage of the daily value of each nutrient of the food and how much it contributes to a total daily diet.

Picture credit: https://www.fda.gov/food/new-nutrition-facts-label/how-understand-and-use-nutrition-facts-label

Common Claims to Watch For

Okay, earlier we said many products put healthy sounding buzz words. However, they can be misleading or downright false. Here are some popular food label claims you need to fact check as a consumer:

Multigrain – Right away we think this is very healthy but it only means the product has more than one type of grain, which could be of the refined type (essentially nutrient poor empty calories). Make sure the product has only whole grains (like oat and wheat). In addition, look out for at least 3 grams of fiber per serving, which often ensures the product is mainly (or all) whole grain.

No added sugar – You should note that some products are naturally high in sugar, so if sugar has not been added it doesn’t mean they are healthy. Furthermore, they could have a number of other unhealthy sugar substitutes (more on that in a bit).

Low-Fat – This often means fat has been reduced at the cost of adding more sugar to the product. Please read the ingredient list thoroughly to catch this.

Fortified or enriched – These mean some nutrients have been added to the product. In the case of fortified, a nutrient is added to a food that never contained that nutrient. For example, adding vitamin D to orange juice or milk. Enrichment is when nutrients that are lost during processing are added back to a food. The problem with both is that the body doesn’t absorb the added nutrients in the same way it would absorb the natural nutrients in whole foods. Furthermore, food companies are using synthetic versions of the micronutrients, which again your body may process differently than the natural food based versions.

Fruit-flavored – Many items, like strawberry yoghurt for example, only have names that refer to a natural flavor. It might not have any fruit at all but instead has chemicals designed to taste like fruit.

Light – This word can be very misleading because the consumer assumes that it has less calories. Sometimes the manufacturer may really mean the flavor or texture is light rather than the nutritional content.

Ingredients to watch out for

When we read the labels we need to look for the foods and nutrients we want to get more of. More importantly we want to know the nutrients we want to limit, which are: saturated fat, added sugars and sodium. Too much of these nutrients or the wrong kinds are associated with adverse health effects. Let’s explore them further:

Check type of Fat
Not all fats are created equal, as some are good and others are bad. Good fat is a major source of energy for the body that helps you stay healthy. We need to choose food with “good” unsaturated fats, limit foods high in saturated fats, and avoid the “bad” trans fat. Let us list them for more clarity:

Unsaturated Fats: Monounsaturated and Omega-3 Polyunsaturated fats should dominate your diet. These can be found in plant foods, nuts and fish.

Saturated Fats: This is mainly found in animal food (meat and dairy). Extra virgin coconut oil is a good plant-based source of saturated fat. Saturated fat increases our total cholesterol. So try to keep saturated fat at less than 10% of your daily calories.

Trans Fats: This is considered the worst type of fat you can eat. It is what we referred to earlier as hydrogenated oil. This is when hydrogen is added to vegetable oil (hydrogenation), so the oil becomes solid in room temperature. It is widely used as it is cheaper, extends shelf life and enhances flavor. Consuming too much trans fat is associated with an increased risk of heart disease, stroke and type 2 diabetes.

Caution: Food producers may substitute other ingredients for trans fat that may not be healthy either in high amounts, such as tropical oils – coconut, palm kernel and palm oils. They may also claim their food is “trans fat free” if it contains less than 0.5 trans fat per serving. They do that by drastically reducing the serving size on the nutrition facts label!

Check the Sugar

High sugar consumption is linked to diseases, such as heart disease, diabetes and even Alzheimer’s (https://www.health.harvard.edu/heart-health/the-sweet-danger-of-sugar).
As you may already know sugar comes in many forms and goes by many names (a trick used by manufacturers is to place sugar further down the ingredient list!). Try to limit all these added, refined, concentrated sugars to no more than 5% of total calories (no more than 2 tablespoons daily for most people). Look out for sugars labeled as the following:

Ending in –ose: sucrose, maltose, dextrose, fructose, glucose, galactose, lactose, high fructose corn syrup, glucose solids.

Other names: corn syrup, rice and maple syrup, molasses, honey, malted barley, sorbitol, maltitol, cane juice (and its other derivatives), dextrin, dextran, maltodextrin, beet sugar, caramel, buttered syrup, carob syrup, brown sugar, date sugar, malt syrup, diastase, fruit juice (and its concentrate), dehydrated fruit juice, fruit juice crystals, golden syrup, turbinado, sorghum syrup, refiner’s syrup, ethyl maltol, yellow sugar.

 

 picture credit: https://labelcalc.com/creating-an-ingredients-list-on-a-nutrition-label-a-guide-to-fda-compliance/

Check the Sodium

Our bodies only need a small amount of sodium. Too much can be bad for our health. Diets high in sodium are associated with an increased risk of developing high blood pressure, which is a major cause of stroke and heart disease. In fact, most dietary sodium does not come from salt added to food when cooking or eating. Over 70% of it comes from packaged and prepared (processed) foods used for preservation and taste. The different types of sodium are: sodium chloride, baking soda, sodium bicarbonate, monosodium glutamate, sodium benzoate, sodium saccharin and sodium nitrate.

Check the nutrients claims on food and beverage packages to identify those with less sodium. You can look out for these claims:

  • Salt/sodium free                   product contains less than 5mg sodium per serving
  • Very low sodium                   product contains 35mg sodium or less per serving
  • Low sodium                           product contains 140 mg sodium or less per serving
  • Reduced/Less sodium          product contains at least 25% less sodium than the standard version
  • Light in sodium                     product contains at least 50% less sodium than the standard version
  • Unsalted/no salt added       no sodium(salt) is added to the product during processing, but the product still contains the sodium that naturally occurs in the product’s ingredients.

We also want to ingest food free from chemicals, GMOs, artificial coloring and other food additives where possible. To know more about these substances, you can read about them in the following articles:

https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/common-food-additives#TOC_TITLE_HDR_3

https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/318589

https://www.stack.com/a/the-concerning-effects-of-synthetic-chemical-dyes-in-our-food

All this information on food labels to sift through may sound overwhelming at first, but once you make it a habit, it gets easier and will help you make informed decisions. You will take better control of your diet and understand what is really being added to your favorite foods.

Finally, we always recommend that you cut back on processed and packaged foods in general and incorporate fresh whole foods (organic where possible) in your daily diet. Remember, the fresher ingredients in your diet, the less intake of food additives! If you have any great food tips we did not mention here, please share it with us in the comments section. We always love to hear from you! Please stay safe, exercise regularly and eat well! Bye for now.

First picture credit: https://www.unlockfood.ca/en/Articles/Nutrition-Labelling/Understanding-Food-Labels-in-Canada.aspx

References:

https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/how-to-read-food-labels#serving-sizes

https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/318630#calories

Ingredient and Food Label Presentation as provided by https://www.liphe.me/our-team