Label Reading 101

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The world of food labels, nutrition fact panels and ingredient lists can be a confusing one. There are SO many different claims and things that draw your focus when you’re looking at a packaged food product. It can be really confusing and overwhelming!

We live in a world where packaged foods make up the majority of people’s diets. Don’t get me wrong, packaged foods as a whole aren’t the biggest issue when it comes to our health (no one thing is); there are some brands and products that are full of nourishing ingredients and there are many packaged products that are actually good for us; like whole grains, for example.

However, when it comes to buying any food that you haven’t prepared yourself, you need to be smart about the products you are buying and what you are putting into your body. At the end of the day, brands and food manufacturers are in this to make money, not preserve your health and support your body. For this reason alone you need to be critical about what you put in your cart and the claims being made on food labels.

I’ve rounded up a few tips you can think about when it comes to buying packaged foods. Get in the habit of always reading your food labels critically before you purchase anything. This is the best way to stay informed and be sure you are buying a quality product!

1) Proceed with caution with refined and processed versions of foods

Whole foods in packages are pretty self explanatory: whole grains, nuts, seeds, greens, etc. are usually just one ingredient and they are simply the whole food in package form. However, when that whole food gets processed or refined in a way to change its cooking time, taste, or texture, you need to start looking more critically at these labels.

Any time a product has been flavoured, you can bet there are going to be lots of additives and flavourings in that ingredient list. Artificial flavours, additives and preservatives are usually lurking in there along with substances like ‘yeast extract,’ which is just a cover-up for MSG. These ingredients do not promote health and they are not necessary for the vital functions of our bodies. Certain ingredients like MSG, can actually cause really negative side-effects for some people like migraines and headaches.

The reality is we really have no idea what these ingredients are doing to our health in the long-run. There’s also no possible way of knowing if the various combinations of these ingredients will add up to more negative consequences in the end.

I’m always looking very critically at ingredient lists; if it’s got more additives than real ingredients, it’s not worth your money.

2) Always read ingredient lists

I touched on this in the point above, but it’s really important to get in the habit of reading your food labels before purchasing your packaged foods. You want to know exactly what’s in your food and think about how it could be impacting your body.

Truthfully I’m more concerned with what’s in my food and where the macronutrients (fats, proteins, carbohydrates) are coming from, than the exact amount of calories or grams of fat. Because fat from a processed, refined oil will impact our body very differently than fat from olive oil or nuts, for example.

Eventually you’ll get to know the brands you can trust and that use quality ingredients, but until then just get in the habit of reading labels on any packaged food.

3) Beware of marketing buzzwords on food labels

This is an important one. Like I mentioned earlier, food manufacturers are trying to make money and sell you their product. They know exactly what the buzzwords are and what people are looking for on food labels. Don’t get caught up in that!

Buying packaged foods should never be a mindless act of just looking at a label and putting it in your cart. Just because something says it’s ‘all natural’ doesn’t mean it’s a healthy product.

4) Be mindful of the halo effect

The ‘halo effect’ refers to our thoughts and feelings associated with certain foods. Muffins and granola are a couple of examples of foods that seem like would be wholesome and nourishing. We feel good about eating these foods, regardless of their nutrition information, because we have a pre-existing idea that these foods are ‘good for us.’ They just ‘feel’ healthy to us, but conscious consumers know these foods are loaded with sugar and are actually more of a treat food than a wholesome breakfast option.

You have to be so careful about how foods are branded and marketed to you. I’ve seen packaged cookies branded as breakfast biscuits’ being sold as a nutritious breakfast food. Something about breakfast biscuits just sounds healthier than breakfast cookies, doesn’t it? Be very cautious with any food label that is trying really hard to convince you it’s a healthy food. Read your ingredient lists and be smart.

5) Organic, gluten free, non-GMO, etc. doesn’t always mean ‘healthier’

This is a big one and definitely ties into the halo effect. We see these words on packages and instantly feel better about them, these words make us feel that we are buying a healthier product.

Be cautious about what these words imply. Yes, organic foods absolutely have their benefits and gluten-free products are certainly a necessity for some individuals. But they don’t automatically mean the food inside the package is healthy or nourishing.

One thing that really irks me on food labels is the re-branding of sugar to make it sound better for us. Always remember that sugar, in any form, is still sugar. Organic sugar, cane sugar and even fair-trade organic cane sugar are just different versions of sugar, but your body only sees it as sugar. It will still promote an insulin response and have all the other effects that sugar has on our bodies.

Always read the ingredient list before buying a product. Don’t take the manufacturers word for it that their product is healthy, you be the judge of that by looking at what’s in the food. I always read my labels because I place a high value on only putting quality ingredients in my body, and I encourage you to do the same!

Alaina Yvon-Moreau