Reading the labels of the foods you buy is not about being neurotic or obsessive. It’s simply about knowing what you’re putting into your body so that you can eat cleaner and be healthier. By knowing the basics of how to read food labels, you’ll be able to start cutting out processed foods and excessive amounts of sugar, and instead eat cleaner and more natural products. And you know what that means? You’ll be on your way to a healthier (and slimmer) you!
Processed food is basically food (and drink) that is altered in a way to make it more convenient for consumers. The fruit we buy at the shops is cut from the tree and packaged for our convenience. Everything in the shops is processed, in that sense.
However, there is a big difference between a whole apple and a bottle of readymade sauce. An apple is cut from the tree and packaged but has no chemical additives added to it. The apple will also eventually go off (rot) because it’s ‘real food’. The bottle of readymade sauce, on the other hand, contain added chemical ingredients, often including added sugar, to preserve its shelf life and enhance its flavour. This sauce can keep for a lot longer than a fresh fruit or vegetable.
So that’s the difference we considering Processed Foods.
These ‘convenience foods‘ line the shelves at the supermarkets. Packaged products like cereals, sweets, drinks, canned products, readymade sauces, salad dressings and lots more. These are the more highly processed foods. Think of all those packaged foods at the supermarket that are convenient and that can last so much longer than fresh produce. Many of these foods contain additives like Artificial Sweeteners, Corn Syrup, Sodium Nitrate, and many more, to help preserve them or to enhance their flavours.
Most of these additives and preservatives offer no nutrients and can instead have harmful effects on your body. Some are worse than others, but either way, why not just eat cleaner and avoid putting any of these nasties into your precious body? Your body will thank you, that’s for sure!
Start by reading the food labels of the packaged foods you buy, and become aware of what you’re putting into your body. From there, start eliminating the heavily processed foods, and opting for more natural options. Here are 5 Simple Ways to Read Food Labels for Healthier Eating, so that you can start making healthier food choices on your next shop!
1) Avoid Too Many Weird Ingredients.
If you want to feed your body what it needs, you should try and eat as natural and whole as possible. Foods in their natural state contain their maximum amount of essential nutrients and offer many health benefits. Highly Processed Foods, on the other hand, contain many potentially harmful added chemical ingredients.
Read the ingredient list of a very processed food, and you’ll likely not know what on earth most of the ingredients are. Most of these ingredients aren’t even actual food and are simply chemicals used for various reasons (not nutrition, that’s for sure!). Some examples include Preservatives to prevent foods from rotting, Colourants to give foods a certain colour, and Flavourants to enhance flavours.
These artificial additives can be toxic to your body, so start off by eliminating highly processed foods.
Read The Ingredient List
Start by reading The Ingredient List of the packaged foods you buy. Become aware of what the food you’re eating actually contains, and just how ‘natural’ it is. There are many weird and wonderful names that’ll pop up. And the lists get longer and more crazy-sounding the more processed the foods get.
It would be a big challenge to learn every single ingredient that could pop up. You can simply google the unknown ones when you come across them on your shop. Or you can keep it super simple like me, and simply focus on eating as natural as possible. Look for ingredients you know are okay, and avoid the long scary-sounding ones like Butylated Hydroxyanisole, Sodium Nitrate, and MSG. Just put that sauce down, there is plenty of other delicious foods you can eat that will give you more nutrition 🙂
Don’t forget, one of the ingredients to avoid on the ingredient list is Added Sugar. And, Sugar is hidden behind as many as 61 different names, like Corn Syrup. Read more on Added Sugars in the next point.
Challenge: On your next shop, try to only buy foods and drinks with 5-7 ingredients or less on the food label. Once you get used to that, go further, opting for foods with only 2-3 ingredients or less.
Keep pushing to eat as natural and clean as possible. You’ll be cutting out so many unnecessary and often toxic ingredients and on your way to a healthier you!
2) Avoid Added Sugar.
When I discovered how much sugar was in ketchup, I was blown away. Seriously, almost one teaspoon of sugar for every tablespoon of sauce!
After that, I naturally wanted to look at every label, out of curiosity. I was shocked at how many unassuming foods contained added sugars, like seemingly ‘healthy’ cereals.
A Quick Look at Sugar.
The definition of sugar:
Sugar is any of a class of water-soluble crystalline carbohydrates, including sucrose and lactose, having a characteristically sweet taste and classified as monosaccharides, disaccharides, and trisaccharides.
Sugar comes in a few different shapes and forms, found naturally in whole ingredients like apples, as well as in processed packaged foods like cookies. Many foods in their natural state contain natural sugars. The point here is to eliminate the Added Sugars. While an apple contains natural sugars, it also comes with many essential nutrients. The cookies, however, contain a lot of added refined sugar and offer very little natural nutritional value in comparison.
Processed sweet foods like sweets, cookies, and soft drinks are the ones to watch out for. But many others contain added sugars too, like readymade sauces and cereals. Don’t let the word ‘Healthy’ written on the packaging fool you. Have a quick look at the Ingredients List and see if Sugar is listed. Don’t forget, there are about 61 different names for Sugar to watch out for.
Common examples include:
Agave nectar, Cane juice, Corn syrup, Dextrin, Fruit juice, Golden syrup, Malt syrup
This is just to show you that when looking at the ingredients list, you’re not just looking for the word “Sugar”. A product may just have “Corn Syrup” listed and it’s good to know that this is a form of Sugar too.
Sugar, the biggest culprit of all!
Sugar is added to food and drink products primarily for taste. It adds that sweet taste that makes people keep coming back for more. Besides taste, sugars are also added as preservatives and texture modifiers, amongst other things.
These Added sugars are often referred to as ‘empty calories‘ because they are high in sugar with no nutritional content. So they do very little to nourish your body. You get a short-term satisfaction and that’s about it.
Next time you’re at the shops, check out some of the Ingredient Lists on Food Labels as you stroll through the isles. Look out for sugar, corn syrup, or any of the other 61 names mentioned above.
Note: Ingredients are listed in order of weight. So the first ingredient is what the product contains the most of, by weight. The higher up the Sugars, the more the product contains. An obvious example is Nutella, which contains about 57 grams of sugar for every 100 grams. That is a lot of sugar!
Another place to look for sugar on Food Labels is in the Nutrition Table. Under Carbohydrates, you will see the total amount of sugar in the product. However, this is the Total Sugar, natural and added. To see specifically if a product has Added Sugars, you need to refer to the Ingredient List.
Challenge: On your next shop, try to not buy any packaged food or drink with Added Sugar on the Ingredient List.
If you find it particularly difficult to cut out a particular item, let me know in the comments! There is always an easy healthy alternative, you just need to commit.
3) Opt for Less all Sugar in General.
There has been so much hype about sugar over the last few years, and so I started doing some research. I read that a woman should aim to have about 25 grams of sugar a day. This sounded sensible. On my next shop, I started checking out food labels of products I enjoyed eating and was horrified at the sugar content on some of them.
It’s important to understand that, while there are different types of sugar, sugar is, in a way, all the same once it’s broken down. A great article on Sugar on Food Labels explains this well. here is a highlight quote:
Are the sugars in my fruit and the sugars in a cookie the same thing? Dr. Aramouni: “Most sugars in fruits are fructose or glucose and to a lesser extent sucrose. Table sugar is sucrose extracted from natural sources. Neither type of sugar is better or worse for consumers except that fructose doesn’t provoke an insulin response. Yet, too much fructose consumption can increase the likelihood of weight gain.”
Natural foods like fruit contain sugar too, and too much fruit can result in weight gain. However, the simple sugars naturally found in whole foods like fruit and veg come with vitamins, minerals, protein, phytochemicals and fibre. And the presence of fibre in these whole products actually slows down the absorption of sugar, reducing its impact on blood sugar. So yes, you could say that the sugars found naturally in whole foods are ‘good’ sugars.
Read Those Food Labels and get Clued Up!
To see the Total Sugar in a product, go to the Nutrition Label. This amount in grams is the total amount of sugars, both natural and added. When you look, make sure you check the portion size it relates to, which is often 100g. Looking at the portion size is very important, so you get a more realistic idea of the amount of sugar relative to the quantity.
You’ll be surprised at the high amount of sugars in some of the ‘healthy’ products you buy. I was horrified at how much sugar my seemingly ‘healthy’ muesli contained. Arg! Makes sense that it gave me that moreish feeling that I couldn’t get enough of.
So, be careful with sugar. Human bodies aren’t naturally designed to consume so much sugar. Sugar is a carbohydrate and can be quickly converted to energy and burnt, but in excess, it’s converted into stored body fat. Besides being stored as fat, there are many ways sugar can harm your health. The negative effects of sugar are written about at length. One of the most important being its effect on our Heart Health. Just read this article on How Sugar Affects Your Body and you’ll get the point.
Challenge: Start choosing packaged products with lower Total Sugars listed on the Nutrition Label. You’ll notice that often the more natural the product, the less sugar is added.
Choose Your Foods Wisely.
Breakfast Cereals: Many cereals contain quite a high amount of Total Sugar. As much as a fifth of the content! Yuk! Instead of these cereals, go for a natural muesli instead. If you’re looking for some sweetness, top your muesli bowl with fresh fruit and a little honey. Much more nutritious, yum!
Yoghurts: Go for as plain and natural as possible. The moment you go for flavoured yoghurts, the sugar goes skyrocketing. And sure, some of this sugar is a result of added fruits. However, it’s a much healthier option to enjoy a natural yoghurt with real whole fresh fruit added afterwards. Sure, the whole fruit contains sugar, but they are in their natural form and come with a lot more essential nutrients.
Avoid consuming the excessive sugars in processed foods & drinks, and you’ll be one step closer to optimal health.
NEWS: The FDA (US Food & Drug Administration) is going to be updating the US Nutrition Facts label for packaged foods. One of the biggest changes they are making is adding “Added Sugars” under “Total Sugars” on the Nutrition Label. This is great news!
4) Choose More Good Fats.
Fat has been given a bad rap for a long time. Marketing has sold the idea that Fat is Bad, resulting in all kinds of “Fat-Free” messaging that encourages consumers to buy into products as they try to lose weight. The truth is, Fat is not necessarily the bad guy here, Sugar is the real problem consumers should be focusing in on. Stop reading those clever marketing messages on the front of packages, and turn to the Nutrition Label and Ingredients List.
In terms of eating Fats, our bodies need them to function. There are basically two groups of fats – Saturated and Unsaturated Fats.
Unsaturated Fats are the ‘healthy’ fats that your body needs for various reasons. Both the monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats can help lower cholesterol levels and reduce the risk of heart disease. Some examples of foods that contain a good dose of unsaturated fats: Avocados, Nuts & Seeds, Olive Oil and Fish.
Saturated Fats are found in animal products (meat, eggs, dairy) and in vegetable oils at room temperature. Yip, that even includes Coconut Oil 🙂 These are the fats you want to eat sparingly.
You can find the Total Fats on the Nutrition Label. You’ll see the total amount per portion size in grams, as well as a breakdown of the saturated fats. My bottle of Extra Virgin Olive Oil, for instance, contains 100 g of Fats, with only 15 grams being Saturated. So you can see that it offers lots of the good, unsaturated fats our bodies need.
Have a look at the Nutrition Tables on the Food Labels of some of the foods you buy to see how much fat they contain. Become aware of which foods contain high amounts of Saturated Fats.
The key is moderation
So there are the ‘good fats’ and the ‘bad fats’. But it’s also important to remember that all Fats are generally high in calories. So if you’re watching your weight, know that any fats in excess can lead to weight gain.
As always, these tips are just guides to help you be more conscious of the foods you eat. Becuase animal products contain saturated fats, aka ‘the bad guys’ that doesn’t mean you need to now cut out all meat, dairy and eggs. Just find a balance.
I enjoy a Paleo approach to eating because my body responds very well to meat. Meat contains saturated fats, but, it also offers many other nutrients our bodies need – Iron, Zinc and essential Protein. So, if you are a meat-eater like me, just go for the healthiest approach possible. Grill your steak instead of frying it in oil. Have a giant green salad or plate of veggies with it. And perhaps opt for Fish as your go-to protein the next night. We don’t need to cut out everything we enjoy eating just because of one ingredient. You need to look at your foods as a whole and find a balance.
Challenge: If you eat meat, opt for leaner meats with lower amounts of saturated fats. Fish, Chicken and Turkey are good options. And when you choose red meat, go for the best quality you can find.
5) Give Your Body More of What it Needs.
Besides looking out for ingredients to Avoid, let’s look for ingredients we need.
Our bodies require a certain amount of different foods to function optimally. From Protein, Good Fats and Calories. As well as essential nutrients like Vitamins and Minerals. Deficiencies can lead to health problems, so work towards a balanced diet with a variety of foods to fuel your body.
You can find the Percent Daily Value (DV) in the far right column of The Nutrition Table. This is a guide to the nutrients in one serving of food, based on what we generally need on a daily based. For example, if the label lists 3 % for sodium, it means that one serving (the amount in grams is specified at the top of the label, next to portion/serving size) provides 3 % of the sodium you need each day.
Most of the DVs are based on a 2,000-calorie diet, as you’ll see in the generic Table above. So even if your calorie intake is higher or lower, you can still use this as a guide to help you determine if a serving of food is high or low in a nutrient.
I just check these to get an idea of the key nutrients foods are giving me. For example, Chia Seeds offer a lot of protein.
Find Out What Your Body Needs to Function
Let’s go Natural!
I hope the above has inspired you to pay more attention to the food you put in your precious body. We are what we eat, remember?
It’s not about spending hours reading every single food label, or about cutting out every single food that contains sugar. You can simply start by reading some of the food labels of products you buy, and become aware of which highly processed foods you really need to cut out. Then start looking for healthier alternatives. Make small changes over time, cutting out those highly processed foods, one by one, and you’ll be one step closer to a healthier, happier you!
If you found this article useful, please share it – It’d be great to inspire others to eat better so that they can nourish themselves with more of the good stuff, and feel their best! 🙂
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