/ / Know What You Eat: 5 Tips for Decoding Food Labels

Know What You Eat: 5 Tips for Decoding Food Labels

When you go to the grocery store, how often do you see people reading the labels on their food before throwing it in their cart? If you’re like most of us, the answer would be “not many.” But the ingredients in everything you get off the shelves aren’t always as healthy — or safe — as you might think.

Still, the only way to avoid unhealthy ingredients in your food is to research each item on the list or go all natural and make your meals from scratch. Unfortunately, eating organically can be challenging, and if you aren’t organized, much of your produce can go bad before you get to it. One way to organize your food pantry to keep your organic food updated is to use sticker labels to date each item.

There’s an in-between method that doesn’t require extreme scrutiny or, on the opposite side, only eating what you’ve produced yourself. You can learn how to decode food labels and recognize what the terms mean when shopping. Here, we’ll explain 5 essential tips to help you recognize what to avoid and what to add to your cart within seconds of seeing an item.

1. Look For Specific Ingredients to Avoid

First, let’s start with any pre-packaged items. These must have a list of ingredients before they make it to the grocery store shelves. The first items on this list are what most of the food is made of, so it should be full of healthy ingredients.

If you see refined grains, hydrogenated oils, or sugar within those initial ingredients, walk away. You may see saturated or trans fats, which should also be avoided. Unsaturated fats are okay in moderation since they have benefits like improving blood cholesterol levels and reducing inflammation. Vitamins and minerals are great, but not if they’re counteracted by the unhealthy ingredients we mentioned.

Keep skimming down to the bottom of the list, and avoid anything with too much sodium (our daily limit is only six grams).

2. Read the Numbers

Now that you understand the terms you’ll see on the box, the next step is to read the numbers. Is it really so bad to have a lot of fat in your food? How much sodium is too much?

The key here is to know how to compare the numbers proportionally to the nutrients in the item. For instance, breakfast cereal is usually full of vitamins and minerals. However, if you’re comparing two brands with the same amount of vitamins and minerals, keep looking for the ingredients you want to avoid. If one has more sugar or saturated fat than the other, go with the less sugary/fatty brand.

You can also compare your food items by looking at the 100g column on the table. Choose foods that have higher nutritional numbers and lower saturated fats, total fats, sugar, and sodium.

3. Watch for Portions

When it comes to any food, the portion you eat matters. It’s easy for a manufacturer to get away with looking like their product is healthy because it only has one gram of sugar in it — but if you look at the portion size, that gram of sugar makes up most of the portion. This amount means that you’re eating almost 100% sugar when you eat it. This is a common trick seen in unhealthy foods and beverages like soda and candy.

4. Sugar-Free Can Be Dangerous

Now that manufacturers recognize consumers don’t want to see sugar in their foods, they’ve gone “sugar-free” or “no added sugar” instead. This title often means they’ve replaced natural sugars with other sweeteners, like aspartame, fructose, glucose, and other unhealthy ingredients.

Some brands use natural sweeteners like honey or agave syrup to make their foods more attractive. These aren’t necessarily unhealthy, but they’re still more sugar in your body than you might want. Be very cautious when a label says it has reduced sugars.

5. Understanding the Carb Label

Carbs get a bad rap, but this is mostly because people are confused about the difference between refined and unrefined carbs and grains. The truth is that your body uses carbs to make and store energy, but when you load it with unhealthy carbs, it bogs your system down like bad gas in a car.

Look for complex carbs, which are whole-food-based and high in fiber and nutrients. These are food items like whole grains, vegetables, legumes, and fruits that you eat with the skin. Stay away from simple or refined carbs. These are full of white flour or sugar and do not have too much nutrition. Simple carbs are things like white bread, soda, cookies, or candies.

Always Read the Label

Instead of spending countless hours scrutinizing the nutrition label and hoping it makes sense to you, use these 5 tips to help you skim the numbers and names. You’ll be able to walk away or add to your cart knowing you’re feeding yourself and your family healthier meals.

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