Deciding which foods to buy can be tricky with all the labels and claims on packaging nowadays. But reading food labels carefully is important to find truly healthy options. Here are some top tips to help you become a savvy food pack label reader and choose better products for yourself and your family.
Check the Ingredients
The ingredients are listed in descending order by weight. This means the first few ingredients are present in the highest amounts. You generally want to see whole foods like vegetables, fruits, whole grains, healthy oils, etc. at the beginning rather than chemicals or highly processed ingredients. For example, look for whole wheat or whole grain flour as one of the first ingredients rather than just wheat flour or grain.
Also watch out for added sugars which can appear under sneaky names like corn syrup, cane juice, sucrose, dextrose and more. Try choosing products with fewer additives and preservatives when possible. It takes a bit more label reading but helps you focus your purchases on more natural, less processed items.
Understand Nutritional Claims
Terms like fat-free, low-fat or good source of fiber sound appealing on packaging. But don’t take these fronts of pack claims at face value. Turn the product around and read what the detailed nutritional panel states as well. A low fat yogurt may actually contain very high sugar levels with minimal protein or nutrients. Likewise fiber claims could be mostly cheap added fibers like inulin rather than natural sources from whole foods.
Make sure to analyze beyond the hype and check the protein, vitamins and mineral levels of items rather than just believing these calls outs. Compare a few different brands to get a feel for what good levels look like. And remember, just because the front says fat-free doesn’t necessarily mean something is healthy if it’s high in sugar and low in nutrition.
Check Percent Daily Values
Use the percent daily values or recommended intake levels stated on the nutritional labels panels to better understand what proportion of your daily recommended intake is included. You’ll see percentages for things like sodium, total fat, dietary fiber and an array of vitamins and minerals. This allows you to analyze if a food contains high or low amounts of these key items.
As a guide, aim for options higher in the good stuff like fiber which you want more of and lower percentages for less healthy components that should be limited like saturated fat or sodium. Getting at least 10-15% of your recommended intake of vitamins and minerals per serving is good while limiting negatives to under 10% ideally.
Watch Total and Added Sugar Content
Food manufacturers know that consumers often just check fat content. So they’ve replaced a lot of fat with extra sugar instead. Unfortunately all forms of added sugar should still be strictly limited for good health even though gram for gram it contains less calories than fat. Excess sugar intake is linked to obesity, diabetes, heart disease and fatty liver disease among other issues.
Common names that indicate added sugars include sucrose, glucose, dextrose, fructose, high fructose corn syrup, fruit juice concentrate, cane sugar, maple syrup, honey and too many more to list. Basically added sugars can sneak in under many different guises. Aim for under 25g per day for adults and closer to 15g for kids. Compare brands and choose options with less sugar and more natural sources of sweetness like fruit when possible.
Note Protein Sources
Getting sufficient daily protein intake is important, especially for breakfast, snacks and meal replacements. But it’s not just about the grams of protein per serving which manufacturers will happily promote. You should also check where exactly the protein comes from on the ingredients rather than just the amounts.
Quality protein sources include lean meats, poultry, fish, dairy products like milk and yogurt, eggs, legumes and beans, nuts, seeds and even whole grains. Be wary of heavily processed foods padded out with extra protein from less healthy sources like cheap powders and isolates or heavily processed soy rather than using whole food ingredients.
Also consider sustainability factors for protein sources like only choosing sustainably sourced fish or eggs from free range chickens fed a natural diet if these factors matter to you. When buying plant-based meat alternatives consider if they contain mainly whole, minimally processes ingredients like peas versus things like isolated pea protein.
Check Credible Certifications
There are many food and ingredient certifications nowadays. Research into which various certifications truly ensure responsible farming practices, ethical working conditions for employees and high quality ingredients rather than just nice logo marketing.
While certifications should not be the only measure since none are perfect, they can help guide potentially better choices if you know the standards and auditing processes behind them. Fair trade certification for example aims to support small farmers by ensuring better prices paid for crops while prohibiting forced and child labor yet may still allow certain pesticides. The organic seal prohibits most synthetic pesticides and GMOs but doesn’t necessarily mean higher nutritional quality than responsibly grown conventional produce.
Despite their flaws, certifications on coffee, chocolate, oils and other items can still give some indication of quality and production ethics. Just make sure to look beyond the logo to understand what’s behind it as best you can rather than just assuming it means healthy and ethical!
Beware of Health Halo Claims
Don’t assume a product is healthy simply because the packaging and labelling of food products says it’s “natural”, made with “real fruit”, contains “whole grains” or has added vitamins. These are classic health halo marketing claims giving an aura of better nutrition when the reality may be higher sugar levels, excessive sodium, weird additives and other processed components.
Rather than judging a product in complete isolation on the shelf, be sure to pull a few alternative similar options and stack them up against each other. You might discover a lower salt canned bean version right next to your usual brand. Or find a cereal with more fiber and protein vs the one with the eye-catching packaging you grabbed first.
Reading private label lubricants might seem tedious but soon becomes second nature once you know what to look for. Taking a few minutes to properly check claims, nutritional content, quality of ingredients and certifications allows for far better informed, healthier choices for you and your family. Using these tips empowers you to feel truly confident rather than overwhelmed in the aisles.