Over the past few months I have worked with many clients who are trying to live a healthier life. One thing that has become increasingly common with food logs is the general misunderstand about what is “healthy” and “unhealthy.” There is a lot of misinformation out there regarding diets and well being.
One of the best ways to ensure that you are an informed consumer and healthier eater is by looking at food labels. These is a standard format for all of the foods we purchase and consume. All food labels look alike and show you the same information.
The first thing you will notice at the top of a food label is a description of what the serving size is and how many servings are in each package. This information is extremely important. Serving sizes are not determined by anyone other than the company who produces the food, meaning that each company can determine how large a serving size is. Next you will want to know how many servings are in a package. It is not uncommon for a small package to have multiple servings. If you did not realize this you might think you are consuming far fewer calories than you actually are.
Next on a food label, you will see calorie and fat content, followed by the percentage of calories that come from fat. This information is also very valuable. A snack with less than 100 calories per serving is considered a low calorie food. Any snack with 100-400 calories per serving is considered a moderate calorie food. And a snack with over 400 calories per serving would be considered a high calorie food.
Below the breakdown of nutrients on each label, you will also find a full list of the ingredients. These are listed in order of largest amount to smallest. It is always recommended to look for ingredients at the top that you recognize. If you find words that you cannot decipher or do not recognize, they are most likely preservatives. Aim for eating more whole or recognizable foods in your diet.
You will also see a list of potential allergens. All allergens must be listed. The most common that you will find are peanuts, tree nuts, soy, wheat, dairy, eggs, and gluten.
Please note that while the government does regulate food labels and most food claims, it does not regulate everything. Just because you find “whole grains,” “organic,” or “healthy,” or “natural,” does not necessarily make them great choices. Sugar laden cereals can also contain whole grains. Organic food can also be full of added preservatives or sugars.
While a food label may make certain health claims, it doesn’t mean that it is completely healthy. Before you assume that a food is good for you, read the label and check it’s serving size, calorie and fat content, amount of sugar, and ingredient list. Compare food labels and always opt for the lowest sodium option between foods.
Serving sizes can be very misleading. Some small bags that appear to be a single serving can actually hold two or three servings. If you did not realize this you might think you are making a wise choice. However, knowing just how much you are consuming might change your decision. I recently came across a granola that was listed by the ounce. Do you know how small an ounce is? The granola had 40+ servings in a small bag. That to me, is almost scandalous!
Be aware of certain foods that can appear to be healthy but labels might show otherwise: Some of the leading culprits (but not all) are cereals, granolas, fat free candies/chips/crackers, energy bars, energy drinks, smoothies, juices, and trail mixes.
While reading food labels might seem tedious now, you will likely find it eye opening. Once you get used to reading labels, you will soon find that you will naturally give it a quick scan and gravitate towards healthier choices.
What is your best recommendation for being an informed consumer?