Today we’re talking about how to read food labels and what to watch for. Food labels are tricky and may make you think something is healthier than it actually is. I’m going to point out some of the common ingredients and why we need to be cautious of them. There is a lot of uncertainty in our human lives, but our food and what’s in it shouldn’t be one of those things!*
Let’s Start with a Memory
Flashback to college and my roommate is spraying a fresh coat of pam on the frying pan. The slick, oily scent wafts through my bedroom as I brush through my freshly straightened hair. I think back to when I was a child asking my mom for the pam so I could bake something. Instead, she handed me what I recall to be canola oil. I looked at her in confusion because I expected pam. However, she told me the canola oil was healthier and we didn’t keep pam in the house.
Canola oil isn’t considered healthy anymore because health and wellness changes frequently. But when I was a kid, canola oil was the better option. I even had a brief stint with oil-free cooking, but that’s a story for another time!
My Background with Food Labels
Anyway, this insignificant moment in my life reminds me of all the not-so-typical products we used in our household. My mom is a big believer in natural, healthy food. My dad follows the paleo diet and lifestyle. Therefore, pam was a no-go. I spent most of my childhood accepting these products as normal, everyday items.
For example, we never had soda (yes, I call it soda because my family is from the East Coast) in our house. I never even had a sip of soda until first grade during one of our elementary parties. It was grape soda to go along with the soft-serve vanilla ice cream. One sip and I was ready to throw it up. The ice cream didn’t help my nausea either.
My parents did allow me to eat like a child; i.e. mac and cheese, turkey and cheese sandwiches (no crust, of course) and other snacks. However, my stomach issues began early on and we started rearranging our food cabinet. For more on my specific stomach issues, click here.
I feel fortunate I was exposed to healthy, organic food at such a young age. Some people roll their eyes when they hear the word “organic,” but I believe there is a big difference. Aside from the usual claims of organic food, I usually do notice an improved quality which leads to improved digestion for me. However, food labels are tricky. Some products will claim to be something they’re not, such as non-GMO or organic. Here are some ingredients to watch for when it comes to reading food labels.
The Sugar Content
Even though something may be low fat or high fiber the sugar content may be sky high to cover up the “high fiber” and “low fat/calorie” taste. Pay attention to the natural and added sugars. Something may contain more natural sugar if it’s fruit based, but something processed will contain more added sugar. Added sugars come from a variety of ingredients. It could be cane sugar, fructose, corn syrup, dextrose, etc. These ingredients can wreak havoc on weak digestion systems.
The Word “Concentrate”
Watch for names such as carrot concentrate or rosemary extract, according to The Telegraph. These little ingredients may sound healthy, but they’re not! Rather, they’re overly processed with no traces of the first 50 percent of their name, aka carrot and rosemary. The extraction process usually takes away any natural or healthy benefits turning them into liquids that don’t resemble the original form in the slightest.
Partially hydrogenated oils are also an ingredient to watch in food labels. This is because these oils are high in trans fats, which increase high cholesterol and decrease overall heart health, according to joybauer.com.
Let’s look at trans fats. These little guys are used to keep food on the shelf for longer. Which sounds okay, right? Wrong. They were developed in a laboratory with the goal of keeping processed food “good” for longer. This means it’s not natural and will probably cause an issue with digestion. Trans fats can be found in many packaged foods, such as chips, butter, baked goods, fast food, and more (joybauer.com).
Food Labels: The Term “Natural”
The ubiquitous food label term “natural” is also problematic. I use natural when I’m referring to food free from processing, with healthy ingredients that are body-friendly. However, “natural” is a term controlled by the food industry, specifically the USDA. According to Krista Scott-Dixon, a writer for PrecisionNutrition, “You can’t stick the “natural” label randomly on a meat or poultry product – but you can slap it on a granola bar made with high fructose corn syrup and hydrogenated oil.” Hello discrepancy!
Food Labels Wrap Up: Juices!
The same goes for juices, which may be only part juice that was frozen and altered with added water, sugar, and/or flavoring. This issue can be attributed to sugar, corn products, and more. It’s truly overwhelming how misleading and fuzzy food labels can be! Interested in diving deeper into food labels? More information on how to deconstruct food labels here.
I hope this list helped you start to understand the process of decoding food labels. This is a work in progress, it takes time to understand exactly what you’re reading. It’s impossible to be perfect and balance is always key. It’s extremely difficult (and expensive on a college dime) to keep up with the healthy foods and only opt for those options. Start small and let yourself ease into the process. We all start somewhere, and the journey is a beautiful experience that will teach you a lot. Stay tuned for a sample of my grocery list for the sensitive stomach.
Questions or comments? Let me know below!
*I’m not a medical expert. This information should not be used as a substitute for any medical advice or conditions. Please consult your doctor for any concerns. Read my disclaimer policy for more information.