The grocery store can be a veritable minefield of indiscernible information, catchy words, flashy packaging, and nutritional terms that mean everything and nothing all at the same time.
While our focus should be on consuming as many label-less products as we can [see my post on Nutritarianism here], eating entirely label-free can be tricky. In our home, things like almond milk, tamari, tahini, and vegan cheese tend to come in a package.
Our best bet is to know what to look for in packaged products so that we can select the ones that are going to give us a) the closest equivalent to whole, unprocessed food; b) the least additives and non-food ingredients, and c) the most nutritional bang for our caloric buck (or in other words, nutrient density).
This is pretty straightforward and doesn't require a graphing calculator or degree in Dietetics (although both can be good to have, depending on the occasion).
You can do this right away with products you already have at home. Pick a product from your fridge or pantry and come on back to the computer... see you in a sec.
Okay! Welcome back. I hope you have your product in hand. Let's break down that label one thing at a time, so you can be armed for your next trip to the grocery store (and feel prepared to answer the age-old question, "Should I buy this?")
Look first at the ingredients. This is going to be the clearest way to tell just what's in that package and whether or not you want to eat it. Ask yourself, "Are the ingredients listed here things I could purchase individually and use in my own kitchen?" You might answer 'yes' to something like natural peanut butter, where the ingredients listed are "peanuts". You might answer 'no' to something like Skippy peanut butter, whose ingredients sound like a recap of the periodic table (see the image below to see what I mean.) Additional minerals shouldn't need to be added to plain old peanuts, but because the product is so highly processed, it has lost much of its nutrient quality and has been fortified. Check out the sugar, too: corn syrup solids and sugar are the second and third ingredients.
Ingredients are listed by quantity on any food label, from the highest content to the lowest content. (ie. if a loaf of bread contains more wheat than salt and more salt than yeast, the label would read: wheat, salt, yeast.) If sugar is in the first half of the list, you might want to stay away from that product.
The benefit of approaching a label by looking at ingredients first is that when we know it's made up primarily of whole foods, we have to worry less about salt, sugar, trans fats, and cholesterol content. It's all right there in front of us. Any naturally occurring salt (ie. in veggies) is going to be of the non-iodized variety, and trans fats don't occur in nature. Generally, a clean ingredient list means a better nutrition fact panel.
Serving size. Portion sizes in the US have more than doubled in the last twenty five years, and more often than not, we eat multiple servings of a food without realizing its intended to feed four or six people. Take a look at the recommended serving size on the nutrition facts panel. This is just a guideline, as the amount you will need depends on how you're using the ingredient, but pay attention to how many servings per container are listed. Many bottled drinks are actually 2 or 2.5 servings, but we don't think twice about consuming the whole thing.
Buzzwords. What prompted you to pick up the package? "Natural", "Pure", and "Healthy" pop up on labels to entice the inner health-conscious spirit in consumers. There are actually no guidelines governing the use of these words; something like petroleum jelly could be labeled 'natural' and 'pure' without breaking any rules. (Interesting to consider that the foods that truly are natural and pure don't have to have these types of claims on them. How much advertising is on kale?) Here are some of the biggest buzzword offenses and how to sidestep them next time you're food shopping:
- Natural: technically, anything can be considered 'natural'. The issue here is whatever was done to that 'natural' thing before it ended up in a package. Look instead for the whole version of whatever that food is (a whole, peel-on banana; real apples; whole soybeans, not soy oil; etc.)
- Whole grain: many flours are labelled 'whole grain', which is exactly what a flour is not. A whole grain looks the same as it did when it was growing (ie. an oat), while a processed grain has been ground up, has lost vitamins and minerals, has them reintroduced artificially ('fortification'), and has likely been irradiated or chemically treated to keep it fresh longer. Look instead for whole grains that are in fact intact, like quinoa, millet, amaranth, steel cut oats, brown rice, and buckwheat.
- Fortified: see above. Many fortified foods used to be whole foods, but through processing lost much of their nutritional value. Nutrients are added back in and those products are then marketed as the healthy choice. Consider, instead, going back to the source: what did that food look like in its whole [nutrient-intact] form?
- Low-fat and fat-free: were you around for the low-fat craze of the 1980s and 1990s? Remember when there was suddenly a fat-free version of every food on the market? Trouble is, fat is a healthy part of every diet, so long as it comes from the right sources. Without it, food doesn't have as much flavor, and many essential vitamins and nutrients require fat to be absorbed properly by the body (vitamins A and E are good examples of these). When fat is removed from food products, manufacturers replace it with sugar. Irony alert: excess sugar converts directly to fat in the body, so we're no better off than eating full-fat foods, are we? Remember: fat doesn't make you fat (but sugar can).
- Gluten-free: I am all for gluten-free products and for the industry's response to the growing need for options for those with allergies. However, just because something says 'gluten free' doesn't mean it's healthy. A highly processed, shelf-stable cookie without wheat is still as brutal for the body as one with wheat; look instead for products that are whole, label-less, and naturally gluten-free. Keep in mind, too, that many companies add 'gluten free' to their labels for things that shouldn't ever have gluten in them anyways (olive oil, peanut butter, apple sauce). In these cases, the term is included to make us think we're making an extra-healthy choice.
- Superfoods: again, no legislation exists to monitor the use of this word on packaging. If you're curious, look at the nutrition fact panel. If more than 3 of the vitamin counts show 200%+ of your daily recommended intake in a single serving AND the calorie content of a single serving is less than ~150KCals, it might be on track to being a super food. But truly, most superfoods don't come in a package. Seek out the whole (fresh when you can) option of things like blueberries, acai berries, spirulina, and cacao. One single ingredient. Lots of nutrients. No need for flashy packaging.
- Antioxidants: another word tossed around for show. Most fresh vegetables have incredible antioxidant power and don't need a label touting their benefits. If a packaged food has antioxidant rich ingredients added during processing (ie. berries, greens), there is a good change the nutritional benefit was destroyed in the process. The same goes for the vitamins and minerals most commonly advertised on kids' products (zinc, choline, iron, B-vitamins, and folic acid). While these are all essential for developing little ones, they will be more easily absorbed by the body (with additional benefits like fiber) when consumed in a whole form. Skip the puffs: get the choline from broccoli.
A really great resource to check out for label reading is The Naked Label. It's run by a group of awesome Holistic Nutritionists in Toronto, and super-smart holistic practitioners from across North America contribute to the site each week. I have been working on "undressing" some products for their blog: if you have a product in mind, please comment below. I'd love to look into it!
So get out that magnifying glass, Nutrition Detective! Aim for label-less where you can and really give everything else some serious scrutiny. The old 'we are what we eat' adage is absolutely true... aim to be as whole and healthy as often as possible.
One component of many of my coaching programs is a health food store tour. These tours are also available as a starting point or refresher for clients not enrolled in full programs. Check out the details here!