A few weeks ago, I addressed the confusion that so often results from trendy, hypey terms splashed across package labels—“all natural,” “fat-free,” “no added sugar,” and the like. (Need a refresher? Click here to return to that recent article.
I hope you found that last discussion enlightening, if disappointing in terms of what your foods will do for your health. But I’ve got good news for you today: You’ll discover relevant, useful information on a package, too. Those parts of the label are the ones we’ll now turn our attention to.
Are you ready to take your shopping savvy to the next level? I know you are, especially where smart food choices are concerned.
- Read the ingredient list.
You can learn a lot by looking at the ingredient list. This is arguably the single most important set of information on any package.
Ingredients must be listed by relative content, in descending order. The ingredient that makes up the greatest proportion of the recipe will be the first item on that list. So, for example, if you’re looking for a bread that’s truly whole wheat, the first thing you should expect to find listed under ingredients is “whole wheat flour” (not “enriched wheat flour,” or “bleached enriched wheat flour,” which are far more refined, heavily processed products).
Learn to identify ingredients that you’d like to limit—by any name. Sugar is one example. Manufacturers may use several different forms of sugar, each used in a smaller amount than the actual sugar total. Malt, molasses, honey, sucrose, lactose, dextrose, syrup, mono- and diglycerides—these are just a few examples of sugar’s many forms and aliases. Why is this important to know? Because those smaller amounts mean the word “sugar” moves farther down the list, effectively hiding it.
If you have allergies or sensitivities, make learning alternate names of your trigger foods a priority. Those who are intolerant of dairy or soy, for example, should know to avoid “casein” or “lecithin.” Nonspecific terms can be red flags, too. A person who’s allergic to MSG or cilantro can’t trust a catch-all term like “spices” or “other flavorings.”
Here are a few more ingredient list policies I advise my clients to adopt:
- A short list is usually a good thing. By contrast, dozens of ingredients indicate a product that has been very heavily processed—which strips away many nutrients—and may be loaded with additives, too.
- Alphabet soup should only be found in…soup. Some ingredients identified by letter-number strings are either petroleum-derived (yes, the same petroleum that powers your car) or synthetic additives our bodies are better off without: TBHQ, EDTA, BHA, yellow 5, blue lake 1…. Other letter-number names stand for ingredients that are derived from safe food sources but may indicate a cheaper quality. For example, PGPR is a soy derivative used to bulk up chocolate treats more inexpensively than pure chocolate would. I know I feel cheated on that one!
- Foods with no ingredient list are likely the purest choices. Juicy, crisp apple or freshly caught local fish, anyone?
- Check the Nutrition Facts box.
You probably instantly recognize this familiar table. But do you know how to use it?
I advise reading the serving size first. (Wink—that jumbo bag is not a single-serve package.) Then, think ahead: Will you really be satisfied at the end of a one-ounce portion of chips? Probably not, but a one-ounce portion of nuts is quite filling. The smart choice there is clear.
A few other Nutrition Facts measurements are especially useful, too. For sodium and sugar, low per-serving numbers are a plus. For fiber, high numbers are usually a good sign. For fats, look for low saturated and zero trans fat.
Quick tip: To easily evaluate snacks, just remember “five and two.” That is, if you see sugar of 5 grams or less AND fiber of 2 grams or more, you’ve likely picked a smart snack!
- Look for an expiration/use by/packed on date.
Depending on the product, a date can mean many things. Two simple guidelines are helpful in sorting them out:
- If they’re not heat-sealed, canned, or refrigerated, very few foods naturally have a long shelf life. There are some exceptions, such as honey, in-shell nuts, dried beans, uncut hard-shelled produce. Most others will spoil in a relatively short time…unless they’re positively loaded with preservatives. A far-away “use by” date may be a sign this food has gotten “help” in the form of additives.
- For produce and meats, freshest truly is best. Dates do matter here, on the products that tend to be displayed on the perimeter of the grocery store.
Once again—just as with the front-side marketing labels we looked at last month—your own careful judgment is the most valuable tool. Think critically, and put your savvy to work every time you shop.
Feeling a little overwhelmed? Remember, it’s perfectly okay to err on the side of caution if you don’t like or can’t make sense of what you see on a package label. You always have the power to choose not to buy—so exercise that right. It’s not the marketing claims that matter but your nutrition, your wellness, your own best interest!