Do you read the food labels for the foods you buy? Most of us don’t because they are often confusing, misleading, hard to understand, and have teeny-tiny type. You might think that the purpose of the food label is to help the consumer, but the reality is that it’s more about selling a product. That’s why you often hear people say the best foods don’t come with labels.
Even those of us who prefer foods that need no labels buy foods that come with labels. I do, though many times I get frustrated because I have to read the label. It frustrates my husband too since I’ve become very particular about what I will eat.
There are 3 main areas to look at on a food label: the front of the package, the nutrition facts and the ingredients list. I’ll take them one by one although you need to look at all of them together to get the full picture.
Front Food Labels
This is the area where you will find the most marketing hype. I’m a skeptic and tend to question everything on the front of the label. Right down to the pictures of luscious fruits. I’ve come to learn that, as in the blueberry muffin picture below, the image may not mean there is real fruit in the package. (I enlarged “with artificial blueberry bits” so you could read 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!
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.
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?)
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?
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 gives various nutrition information based upon that serving size. Even at that, it doesn’t tell us the whole picture. While both of the products whose nutrition facts are shown below say “Trans fat 0g,” only one of them has no partially hydrogenated fats or oils in it. (Their ingredients are listed in the two images below in the section on ingredients.) If you want to understand that, read my post on how trans fat hides in our foods.
There’s a lot more we could say about the nutrition facts on a food label. It could be an entire post by itself. I’ll leave that for another day.
Ingredients List Food Labels
The ingredients list on a food label is where nothing can hide – if 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. That’s how we know in the first item that, while it does contain whole grain wheat flour, it contains more of the unbleached flour.
Something else to look out for is how sugar is listed. I’m focusing on sugar for a reason. I’ve written about sugar quite a bit because the more I learn the more firmly I believe it is our number one health problem. Sugar hides in many forms in our food, allowing it to not appear so close to the top of the ingredient list. How does sugar hide? Sugar has many names. I’ve created a PDF that lists all the names for sugar. In the image below, I’ve underlined in red all the times that sugar is listed in the ingredients of this cereal.
Do you plan to read your food labels more closely now? What more information would you like about food labels. Leave your comments below.