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Apply These 7 Steps When Reading Food Labels

Jul 26, 2022 | Blog, Nutrition

Dr. Mark Hyman recently quoted that “One-third to one-half of all Americans have gut issues due to the constant consumption of industrialized foods, glyphosate, food additives, and more”.

This is astonishing to know and very important to consider when making decisions about what to eat while aiming to stay healthy. After all, most diseases start on the gut level. That means that what we consume every day, compounded over time, has a BIG impact on the state of our health!

As consumers, we have enormous power over what we buy and eat, but we need to remember to exercise this power DAILY. The first best place to start is by reading the nutrition label and ingredients list on a food product. Here, we’ll not only learn to judge a product for what it TRULY is but also uncover the intricacies of food labels not always obvious to the average consumer.

Learning to read food labels is a life-long skill that each of us can get better at to support our health. Here are 7 tips to get you started:


Step 1: Know WHO’s selling you the product and WHAT they’re selling you.

Food companies have great power to sell us ANYTHING we want. We’re often attracted to eye-catching designs and promising health claims that immediately draw us in. But, if we’re going to spend money on something, knowing the company behind the product is just as important as evaluating the product itself. For example, some companies may claim to be healthy but are actually affiliated with larger parent companies, like Nestle, for example, a well-known company known for its not-so-healthy products. Go figure!


Step 2: Don’t be fooled by misleading marketing claims.

We see misleading health claims all over the packaging nowadays. Things like “Organic”, “Gluten Free”, and “Low Fat” are all aimed to make a product seem more appealing than it actually is, but more often than not, these claims are just put onto food products without any substantial merit. The crazy part is that many of us rely on them when evaluating and purchasing a product. Learn more here about the true meaning behind some of today’s most popular health claims.


Step 3: Know Your Calories by Single AND Total Servings.

When looking at a nutrition label, it’s very easy to assume a product is healthy if it says “100 calories per serving”. But remember, NOT all calories are created equal. For example, 10 potato chips may have 100 calories which is great. But what happens if you accidentally ate the whole bag? Been there, done that! This means you could be running the risk of consuming over 1,000 calories in one sitting. That’s why it’s crucial to not only look at calories per single serving suggestion, but also total servings per container, just in case you accidentally indulged.


Step 4: Know the hidden names for sugar.

Not many know that daily sugar intake can accumulate from the many hidden names of sugar that live within the crevices of a nutrition label and ingredients list. For example, a company can state on their nutrition label that there is “No Added Sugar ” while still using a sugar substitute like Sucralose. Sucralose isn’t processed the same way as real sugar is (even though it’s made out of sugar) so they technically don’t have to call it “added sugar”. That’s why we should always scan the ingredients list for hidden names of sugar AND look at “Total Added Sugars” on a nutrition label. Rest assured, we can continue to eat whole foods with naturally occurring sugars like raw honey and fruit that our bodies metabolize a lot differently than processed sugar.


Step 5: Look for the good and bad fat.

Similar to calories and sugar, not all fat is created equal either. Fat is essential for optimal health, the good fat that is. But how do we determine between good vs bad? By now, we know we need good fats like monounsaturated and omega 3 fatty acids for optimal health. In addition, we’ve discovered that saturated fat isn’t as bad as we once thought and can actually be a part of a healthy diet when consumed in moderation. Cholesterol too. That leaves us with the overconsumption of polyunsaturated omega 6 fatty acids (which are bad when we don’t get enough omega 3) along with hidden trans fats found in ultra processed foods. Both of which are primarily found in vegetable seed oils and are the true contributors to metabolic dysfunction, inflammation, and heart disease rampant today. Bottom line: avoid seed oils like the plague even if they’re organic. These include canola, soy, safflower, corn, sunflower, peanut oils.


Step 6: Avoid salt in highly processed foods but don’t avoid salt altogether.

Sodium, unfortunately, still gets a bad rep for causing high blood pressure. But just like calories, sugar and fat, not all sodium is created equal. In fact, some research suggests that the real culprit is sugar and not salt. Nonetheless, it’s important to know that sodium in ultra processed foods is way different than sodium in natural foods like seafood or salts like sea salt and pink Himalayan. Everything in moderation, including sodium, but don’t fear salt as it’s crucial for optimal health. Instead, fear overconsumption of salt in ultra processed foods found at the grocery store and restaurant chains.


Step 7: Read the ingredients list first.

We tend to look at the nutrition label first to determine if a product is healthy, but the ingredients list can actually give a more helpful picture. Did you know that by FDA law, ingredients must be listed in descending order with those used in the greatest amounts listed first? For example, if the first ingredient says “enriched white flour”, then I know I’m eating predominantly just that. Refined white flour, amongst sugar and trans fats is another serious contributor to modern disease which we want to have less of in our diet.

As you can see, there are many points to consider when reading food labels to set ourselves up for better health, especially gut health, in the long run. The more we know about how to interpret food labels, the more we can take back our power as a consumer and take charge of our health.

Written by Health Coach Lydia, NBC-HWC

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