Reading Food Labels – A Necessary Evil

Nutrition Facts On Food Label Sugars
Reading Food Labels
Reading food labels is not a fun task, but it’s a good idea. Most of us don’t read food labels because they are often confusing, misleading, hard to understand, and have teeny-tiny type. Too often, the food label is designed for selling rather than informing. That’s why my favorite foods don’t come with labels.

When you are buying foods that have labels, it’s a good idea to read the label. There are 3 main areas to look at on a food label: the front of the package, the nutrition facts and the ingredients list.

Front Food Labels

The primary purpose of the front label is to sell the product. You’ll find beautiful pictures and enticing words that can make your mouth water. It’s a good idea to ignore most of this.

Pictures of delectable fruit may or may not mean there is real fruit inside. Such as this blueberry muffin mix package, pictured below. I enlarged that fine print for you so you could see that it says “with artificial blueberry bits.”

Front Food Label Fake Blueberries
This product, contrary to the image, has no real blueberries in it.

Too often we find words like “natural” and “whole grain” and “light” and “healthy” and more. It’s a good idea to dig a little deeper by checking the back of the food label. Many of the terms have no real definition. Those include natural and light. Food manufacturers may tell you their product is “all natural” or “100% natural” but those terms have no meaning. Not to mention that there are lots of “natural” things that you would not want to find in your food!

Front Food Label Light
This product is Light. Another statement that has no official definition.
Front Food Label Natural
Wow! 100% natural! A statement that has no official definition.

Then there are the whole grain claims. Food manufacturers would love for you to think that their products are 100% Whole Grain, but they also want to reduce their costs. So they put things like “Whole Grain First Ingredient” or “Whole Wheat with 5 gm Whole Grain” on the front label. Reading the back of the label tells the whole story. That’s why it’s important to read the ingredients list instead of the front of the package.

Front Food Label Whole Grain
The front label says that Whole Grain is the first ingredient which means it’s better than other products but not necessarily 100% whole grain.
Front Food Label Whole Grain: 5 grams
This label lets us know, in small letters, that the product has 5 grams of whole grain per serving.

The term “healthy” is regulated by the FDA. Foods labeled healthy must meet certain requirements for calories, fat, and cholesterol. You’ll need to decide for yourself if this term has meaning to you. (I also think it begs the question that if a company has a line of products they label “healthy” then what does that say about their other product lines?)

Front Food Label Healthy
The term healthy is regulated so this food label could have real meaning.

One more for the front food labels is something fairly new called “Facts Up Front.” I’m not clear that this is required, but I know there are rules if it is used. The first four items – calories, saturated fat, sodium, and sugars – are required. A food manufacturer may also highlight other information about their product. What do you think? Is this helpful or does it just muddy the waters even more?

Facts Up Front
Facts up front, an attempt to make label reading easier.

Nutrition Facts on Food Labels

The nutrition facts section of the food label gives us more information. It defines a serving size – something that isn’t really regulated – and then gives you calories, fats, sugars, etc based on that serving size. When reading nutrition facts, be sure to check the number of servings. Something you think is a single serving is listed as two or more servings. You may be consuming more than you expected.

The best foods don't have any labels on them! Click To Tweet

Even at that, it doesn’t tell us the whole picture. The nutrition facts may say “0 trans fat” but if you find “partially hydrogenated fat” or “hydrogenated fat” in the ingredient list, the product has some trans fat in it. Legally, based on FDA rules, a product can contain up to 0.5 grams of trans fat and list “0 trans fat” in the Nutrition Facts. See the image of the product in a red box. If you want to understand that, read my post on how trans fat hides in our foods.

Food Label Zero Trans Fat
The nutrition facts on the food label may say 0 grams trans fat, but you need to read the ingredients list to be sure.

Ingredients List Food Labels

The ingredients list on a food label is where nothing can hide, as long as you know how to read it. Ingredients are required to be listed in order of decreasing weight. So the most prevalent ingredients are at the top of the list. There are a number of things to look out for in the ingredients list:

  1. Sugars – Sugar is found in many ingredients, allowing it to not appear so close to the top of the ingredient list. Download this list of 70 ingredients that are forms of sugar.
  2. Partially hydrogenated or hydrogenated fats – These are all trans fats. If you find them on the list, put the item back on the shelf.
  3. Food allergens – Some products summarize allergen at the end of the list, but it is not required. Read every ingredient.
  4. Long lists – Especially when they contain too many chemical-sounding ingredients. If you can’t pronounce it, do you want to eat it?
Sugars on an Ingredients List
Sugar isn’t so high on the ingredients list in this product because it is added in many forms. Check the nutrition facts to get the total amount of sugar.

Reading Food Labels

First, ignore the front of label advertising. Concentrate on the Nutrition Facts and the Ingredients list. You’ll need to look at both to get the whole picture.

The nutrition facts may say “0 trans fat” but if you find “partially hydrogenated fat” or “hydrogenated fat” in the ingredient list, the product has some trans fat in it. Legally, based on FDA rules, a product can contain up to 0.5 grams of trans fat and list “0 trans fat” in the Nutrition Facts.
Also, watch out for sugars. Become familiar with all the names for sugar. Sugars can be the most prevalent ingredient, but not be listed as such if the product uses more than one type of sugar.

If you or a family member has food allergies, you’ll want to read that ingredient list carefully. It can be frustrating to read through a long list of ingredients. I have a few things to watch out for in foods. If the list is too long or the print too small, I simply put the product back on the shelf. It’s just not worth the risk.

Tell us in the comments: Do you read labels before you buy?

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