5 Tips for Understanding Food Labels: what you need to know for better health

Earlier this week I taught a class on decoding food labels and avoiding marketing gimmicks. We all agreed that over the past few years grocery shopping has become increasingly frustrating. We’re all trying to do what’s best for our own health as well as our family’s. But, between organic, GMO/Non-GMO, sugar-free/fat-free, enriched with vitamins and antioxidants!…where do you even begin?

http://www.parents.com/blogs/food-scoop/2014/02/27/diet/will-new-food-labels-help-kids-eat-better/Trying to follow each new trend will leave you confused and overwhelmed.  We’ve given too much power to companies to determine what’s healthiest for us; take control of your own well-being by learning to read between the labeling lines.

Brand loyalty has changed to ingredient loyalty. While some companies may not use artificial colors or synthetic sugars in one product, it’s no longer safe to assume that they don’t use them in other items.

These five tips will help you understand which labels to look for and which terms should raise a red flag.

organic-non gmo1. Organic vs. Non-GMO: Though these may seem interchangeable and instant piece of mind that you’re choosing a healthy product, these certifications have different meanings.

USDA Organic is a stringent certification process regulated by the government. Products with this label meet certain criteria: *95-100% of the ingredients are organic *no hormone or antibiotic use in meat/poultry *no synthetic colors, flavors, or preservatives *no synthetic fertilizers *animals were fed organic feed *contains no GMO ingredients.

Ideal, right? Yes and no. While this seal has great merit, it also comes at a hefty price. Many small companies and farmers may meet all of the criteria, but they cannot afford thousands of dollars to apply and maintain annual certification. Don’t automatically overlook the independent businesses strictly based on this seal. Farmers markets are a great opportunity to meet your local farmers and talk to them about their products and how they’re grown.

Non-GMO Verified is a third party, not-for-profit organization committed to verifying and labeling non-GMO products. Unlike the USDA Organic seal, this certification only focuses on non-GMO ingredients.

There’s still much controversy over the use of genetically modified organisms (see: What the GMO: what are they and why should you care). Regardless of where you stand, the majority of Americans believe that labeling genetically modified foods is important. Big corporations disagree. Perhaps because over 60 countries have banned or placed strict restrictions on the use of GMO’s.

sugar names2. Fat-Free/Sugar-Free: Both of these terms should set off huge warning signals! How do you maintain taste and texture when fat has been eliminated? Add a bunch of chemicals. A sugar-free claim is a good indication that artificial sweeteners have been added.

Though you may hope you’re making a healthier choice eliminating sugar, artificial sweeteners are not only 100+ times sweeter than table sugar, they’ve also been linked to many health concerns:

over-eating, weight gain, migraines, change in vision, nausea, insomnia, abdominal pain, sleep disorders, joint pain, change in heart rate, depression, seizures, cancer, memory loss, dizziness, fatigue, allergies, fibromyalgia, and birth defects.

Yet sugar is still a concern. There are over 50 different ingredient names for sugar. Want less sugar in your diet? Choose foods that don’t contain sugar(s) within the first few ingredients. Don’t forget to check condiments, yogurt, and dressing.

nutrition label3. Nutritional Facts: Nutrition labels provide good information, but how do you read them? If you determine the product’s nutritional value based on the number of calories, fat, and sugar you’re not seeing the whole picture. First, look at the serving size. Though sugar/calories may seem on target for a snack- is the given serving size a typical portion?

If the product is high in fat, determine the source. Nuts, seeds, and avocados are high in fat but also packed with important nutrients. Artificial trans-fats, however, should be avoided at all cost. A product can claim “trans-fat free” yet still contain a small amount of artificial trans fats- ensure that  “partially hydrogenated” isn’t in the ingredient list.

How much sugar is actually in a gram? To quickly determine the number of teaspoons, divide the sugar grams by four.

Relying on the vitamin and mineral percentages can be tricky. These numbers are based on a 2000 calorie diet, so you may need to make some adjustments. You’re more apt to reach the recommended daily values by choosing foods without a nutritional label (fresh/frozen produce) which offer greater sources of vitamins and minerals over processed items.

4. Enriched/Fortified: In order to create a longer shelf-life, products are stripped of their natural vitamins during processing. A food that is enriched has those lost vitamins/minerals added back into the item. Fortified, on the other hand, means that vitamins/minerals not originally found in the product have been added. Though foods fortified with certain vitamins (vitamin D in milk, for example) can be beneficial, it can also be a clever way to market vitamin/antioxidant trends. Junk food with added vitamins is still junk food.

http://thewholestorymethod.org/category/whole-food-as-food/5. Eat the Rainbow: No, not a bag of Skittles! Artificial colors have been linked to ADD, ADHD, cognitive disorders, cancer, hives, allergies, and behavioral disorders. Ingredient lists that include synthetic colors like Red #40, Yellow #5, and Blue #6 are best left on the shelf. Instead, incorporate fresh/frozen produce to help “eat the rainbow.” Side effects of these colors: improved digestion, heart health, clear skin, improved vision, joint support, blood health, improved immunity, powerful antioxidants, and reduced risk of cancer.

Though all five of these tips are important, addressing all of them at once can be overwhelming.

Start small. Next time you’re at the store, choose one item to focus on: avoiding artificial colors or synthetic sugars, choosing a non-GMO or organic option instead, or selecting fresh/frozen produce naturally high in vitamins and minerals…not enriched. While this may initially cost you a few extra minutes at the store, you’ll gain a greater reward of health and well-being.

food label photo credit
nutrition label photo credit

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