Label Reading 101

The following excerpt is from my upcoming book and gives you a quick guide to reading labels.

If something is designed to make our lives easier, why do we feel more confused? This is how many people feel after looking at food labels. Plain and simple – food labels are not user friendly. You almost need an interpreter to figure out what information is being conveyed and how to apply it to your life. It is similar to someone who has never attempted a crossword puzzle– where do you begin?

Many things on the label are optional. For starters, we are not scientists and need only to look at key pertinent information. Percentages, numbers on the bottom are comparisons to an average male adult of a certain weight, which may or may not apply. A good starting point is to read the list of ingredients on the label or side of the box. Questions to ask are:

How many ingredients does the food have? If there are more than 5 or 6 ingredients, consider re-evaluating your food choice, since the more ingredients the more processed the food will be.

Are any of the ingredients other names or components for sugar or starches– such as sucrose, dextrose, maltose, glucose, mannitol, sorbitol, molasses, monosaccharides, polysaccharides, maple syrup, maple sugar, date sugar, brown sugar, raw sugar, turbinado sugar, high fructose corn syrup? If the product contains any of these names it is very likely it is a high sugar product.
Does the product contain MSG, or other ingredients that may contain components of MSG such as aspartame, broth, glutamate, hydrolyzed, autolyzed yeast, monosodium glutamate, HVP, yeast extract, malted barley, rice or brown syrup? MSG is a flavor enhancer for foods but also can increase appetite and allergic reactions in some individuals.

How many preservatives or stabilizers does the product contain? Sometimes one or two are okay for a week or two of extended shelf life, but many preservatives ensures the “food” would be there next year if you came across it in your cabinet.

Is there anything you do not recognize or can’t pronounce? (one clue it may not be a healthy food choice).

If a product contains less than 5 or 6 ingredients and does not have extras sugars or other preservatives you can now check the label. Look for serving size as many manufacturers make it small, (serving sizes are one of the hidden keys on a label) to make their product look healthier than it actually is. Look for “total carbohydrates” which will tell you how much carbohydrate/starch/sugar the product contains. 15 grams is equal to about a serving or a slice of bread. A product containing 45 grams of total carbohydrates is similar to consuming 3 slices of bread.

Trans fat is one major consideration. Unfortunately many manufacturers make the serving size so small it falls under the “do not need to report” guideline. If the serving size has less then .5 grams of trans fat a manufacturer can state “contains no trans fat” on the label. Do not rely on what the front of the package states. If you ate several servings of a food with “no trans fat” on the label of a packaged/processed food it could add up to well over 2-3 grams of trans fat per day, which is the most dangerous type of fat.

Researchers at Harvard, including Dr. Walter Willet, warn against consuming greater than 2 grams of trans fat per day since it can increase your risk of heart disease by 37 percent, well above any risk of consuming saturated fat. How much trans fat does processed foods contain? Check it out before purchasing. Examples:

· a medium size order of French fries has approximately 8 grams of trans fat
· a small bag of potato chips has 5 grams
· a donut has approximately 5 grams
· a regular sized candy bar has 3 grams

If you eat even small amounts of processed foods, eating 2 or more grams of trans fat easily adds up.

How much sodium does the product contain? The average consumer eats about 6000 mg. per day. The American Heart Association and many health organizations including the National Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Medicine recommend keeping your sodium intake below 2300 milligrams per day. If you consume several products which contain more than 500 mg. per serving of sodium, it quickly adds up.

Summing up label reading

Start by looking at the list of ingredients. If the list passes the litmus test, then read on to see if the product is moderate in carbohydrate, sodium, and trans fat. If it has some protein, some monounsaturated fat (healthy fat) and fiber listed on the label, all the better for a balanced meal.
Otherwise, stick with fresh unprocessed foods which do not have labels and limit your exposure to foods in a package. The more ingredients a food contains, the longer it may take your body to process the food. Furthermore, if there are items you cannot pronounce or recognize on the label it might be wise to leave it on the shelf. Your body will thank you!