How to read food labels to determine if a food is healthy

How to understand food labels. Everyone should know this nutrition information when trying to lose weight.

Food labels are a crucial part of understanding basic food and nutrition. When you make the decision to respect your body with your food choices, a trip to the grocery store can feel like a stroll through a minefield. You might start to notice just how bad the things you used to put in your body are. 

Most of us know the basic rules to shopping healthy. Are few of these recommendations include:

  • choosing low fat, low sugar or low-calorie options 
  • picking wholemeal options over refined carbohydrates
  • sticking to the perimeter of the store where fresh foods are located
  • shop with a plan, and better yet, a detailed list
  • never shop whilst hungry

But with the growing demand for healthy products, food companies have taken notice. The global health and wellness market is set to be worth $1 trillion (yes, with a “T”) by 2017. But unfortunately, like with most things, money tends to complicate things. When competing in an oversaturated market like the healthy food industry, companies have to do more to stand out consumers. Each product wants to offer the consumer more health benefits than its competitor. 

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In light of this competition, there exists a lot of misinformation (and strategically left out information) when it comes food packaging. Marketers use a number of effective techniques to manipulate consumers into buying their products. But unfortunately, you’re probably not buying what you think you are. 

It’s a crazy time to be a consumer – let alone one who wants to make a healthy choice. It’s SO important to understand food labels so you don’t fall victim to these manipulations. Not only will it save you money in the long run, it’s also much better for your wellbeing and weight loss goals! 

Read on to find out how to make sense of food labels and to tell if something really is “healthy.”

Pay attention to:

The back of a food packet is the only thing that should influence your buying decision. In particular, you should pay close attention to the macronutrients, servings and the ingredients list. Here are a few things to look out for: 

food labels

MACRONUTRIENTS

The energy or calorie content of a certain food is the total number of each macronutrient added together. Protein and carbohydrates each contribute 17 kilojoules (4 calories) per gram while fat accounts for 37kj (9kcal) per gram. So if a serving of something has 3g of fat, 7g of carbohydrates and 4g of protein, each portion will contribute about 298 kJ. 

Protein

Protein is the easiest to understand among the macronutrients – the higher the number of grams, the higher the protein content of the product. Each gram will contribute 17 kilojoules (4 calories) to the overall energy value. 

Fat

The different types of are fat are also not created equal. Depending on the legislation in the country you’re buying the food, different types of fat may or may not be listed. Saturated fats almost always get a special mention. Trans fats, which are harmful to health even in small amounts, don’t have to be mentioned on food labels in Australia. While in the USA, a product can claim it’s trans fat-free if it has less than 0.5g per serving. It’s important to scan the ingredients list for any type of fat or oil that has “hydrogenated” in the name – these usually contain trans fats. Aim for products where the majority of fat comes from monounsaturated or polyunsaturated sources. There’s also a list of the many other names fats can appear as in the cheat sheet. 

Carbohydrates

There are a number of things to consider when looking at the carbohydrates tab. As we know, carbohydrates are not created equal. Firstly, you want to determine what amount of the carbohydrates are simple sugars. Do this by comparing the total number of carbohydrates to the number of sugars. Aim to keep the percentage of sugar low.  Also, aim for foods where sugar is listed towards the end of the ingredients list, too. If it’s listed towards the start, that means it’s a major ingredient! There’s a list of the many other names sugar can be listed as in the cheat sheet. 

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SERVINGS

Even if you master reading the macronutrients mentioned above, it can still be easy to be tricked by the way servings are listed. It’s easy to grab a health food bar or food packet and decide it’s low in calories, sugar and fat before realising the label is actually for two or three servings – IN SOMETHING THAT IS CLEARLY MARKETED TO BE CONSUMED IN ONE GO. It drives me nuts! Always pay close attention to the servings.

Serving Size

Off the top of my head, I can’t name a single thing that’s less in touch with reality than serving sizes on foods labels. Most are simply just not reflective of what people eat. Don’t make the mistake of misunderstanding how much a serving size is. Most serving sizes are listed in grams, which kind of means nothing if you don’t have a scale.

Take action now: Measure out a serving of foods you eat frequently in grams and place them inside a measuring cup or spoon. This will make it easier to portion out a serving in the future. For example, a 30g serving of rolled outs equals 1/4 of a measuring cup. Now each morning, I just need to use a measuring cup to see how much a portion of oats is, instead of the scales. 

Number of servings

Another easy way to determine a serving size is to divide the container or packet into the number of servings. This is easy for things that contain between one and four servings. If it contains two, just divide the packet in half. For four servings, divide the packet into quarters.  

INGREDIENTS 

The ingredients list on the back of a packet can give a huge insight into the quality of a certain food. Look at this list logically. If a food claims to be “all-natural,” but contains a long list of ingredients you can’t even pronounce, it’s probably not the healthiest choice. Also, try to avoid preservatives and artificial colours and flavours. 

Ingredient names

Many consumers have cottoned on enough to avoid buying things that have high amounts of sugar, salt and low-quality fats. To get around this, food companies have begun using alternate names for these common ingredients. Sugar can appear as dextrose, fructose, glucose, golden syrup, rice malt syrup, honey, maple syrup, sucrose, malt, maltose, lactose, organic cane sugar and sucrose. There’s a complete list of these alternate ingredient names in the cheat sheet. 

The order they’re listed

Ingredients are always listed in decreasing order by weight. That means the first ingredient listed is the one that makes up the largest majority of the product. For example, if a product claims to be “filled with heart-healthy fats” on the front of the package but the first ingredient listed is white flour followed by fructose, you’re probably not buying something healthy. 

HEALTH CLAIMS

Health claims are always placed on the front of a packet for a reason – to result in a sale. Don’t take them at face value. Always investigate further on the back. 

Low-fat

The war on fat is officially over, but low-fat is still a popular selling point. Low-fat options can be good for getting a lower calorie product. However, they can be higher in sugar and artificial ingredients compared to their full-fat counterparts. It’s better to choose a product higher in healthy fats than a low-fat option filled with refined carbohydrates. 

Low in sugar

Sugar offers little when it comes to nutrition. However, it may be a better option than some of the alternatives that have been cooked up in laboratories. Always check the ingredients list to see what has been used to replace sugar. 

All natural

This is a very vague term. Most food ingredients can be classified as natural. Table sugar comes from a plant. Butter comes from a cow. Gluten-filled, white flour comes from a grain. Fructose is found in fruit. You get the picture. 

Irrelevant claims

To play into the mentality of the health halo (mentioned below), a number of brands have begun printing redundant health claims on their packets. For example, coconut water claiming to be vegan, jelly beans boasting that they’re fat-free. These claims apply to all brands in their respective categories and do not equal a healthier product. 

Don’t fall for these marketing tricks:

CLAIMS ON THE FRONT OF THE PACKAGE

Never make a purchase decision from the information that’s on the front of the packet. Marketers only put information there in a bid to sell the product. Instead, you should be concentrating your effort on the label on the back. That’s where an accurate indication of the product’s nutrition truly lies.

THE HEALTH HALO 

Many people are tricked by the psychological “health halo,” which basically means that if a product has one health benefit, you will automatically think that the ENTIRE product is healthier. These can include things like being low in fat, gluten-free, high in fibre, vegan, organic, raw, naturally-sweetened etc. But just because a food has one or two of these claims does not automatically make it a food healthy. ALWAYS investigate further. 

Conclusion

  • Health claims on food packets should not be taken at face value. Investigate further by turning over the packet. 
  • Not all macronutrients are created equal.
  • Pay attention to how much of the carbohydrate content is made up of sugar and how much is dietary fibre.
  • Look at how much of the fat content is saturated or trans.
  • Don’t fall for the health halo. One health claim does not make the entire product healthy. 
  • Thoroughly inspect the ingredient list. Usually, the shorter the list, the better. 

But luckily, the majority of the marketing tricks and manipulations mentioned above can be avoided by buying fresh food that doesn’t come in packets!

Take action now: 

Download the cheat sheet and save it on your phone or computer for easy reference. Take an item out of your cupboard right now and use the cheat sheet to determine whether it’s as healthy as you thought it was when you first purchased it. Head on over to Facebook and let the Shape University community know your answer!

Let’s chat below! Did you know this information about food labels? Which tips are you going to use when reading food labels now?

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