Flip a packaged food over and have a look at the nutrition information on the back. Lots of numbers, big words, tiny print. Is it any wonder people get confused?
Reading labels can be an effort – at least when you aren’t used to it. But they are also a treasure trove of information about how that food might impact your health, once you know what to look for. Learning labels takes a little thought – mainly, figuring out what you are looking for – and then a little practice. Give it a try and you’ll be pleasantly surprised how quickly you’ll get the hang of it!
Many factors determine how “healthy” a food is. But regardless of your personal situation (allergies, intolerances, or other specific dietary needs), there are a few fundamental ways to help you determine if a food is going to be good for you. None of these will probably come as a surprise, but instead of just telling you to “read labels”, we’re going to discuss exactly what you want to be looking for when you’re looking, giving you a clear understanding of how to make the best choice (for you!).
It is generally assumed that the less processed a food is, the higher its nutritional value will be. Higher nutrient value is, of course, a big step toward being healthier and better for your body. More processed foods, on the other hand, are usually made up of whole ingredients that have been broken down, some parts taken out, other additives (sometimes from other food products, other times manufactured) put in to keep some sort of appealing taste and/or texture, and then reassembled into the final food product. Cheap for the manufacturer, often appealing to the consumer, but usually these are not things that our bodies love – even if it can boast being “low carb” or “fat free”. (Though as it turns out, neither low-carb nor fat-free foods are sure paths to a healthy diet.)
Actual real food, on the other hand, is minimally processed and has a much higher nutritional value, and often doesn’t even have a package or label. Common sense tells us “fresh is best”, right? Since that’s not always possible (or practical), this article is directed towards choosing the healthiest of the foods that actually come in packages and with labels.
So, how do you determine to maximize the health and nutrient value of the foods you choose to buy and eat?
Check the ingredients
This is my first stop on a food label, even before the nutrition numbers. Since each ingredient and added component (the additives) of a food need to be listed, the shorter the list, the less processed that food is likely to be. My rule of thumb is that any packaged food that I buy has five ingredients or less.
Interesting side note: Ingredients are listed in order of quantity, so the ingredient that comprises the largest percentage of a food will be listed first, the second largest percentage will be listed second, and so on. This can be helpful if you’re after a specific packaged food that has something relatively undesirable in it, since it can help you gauge how much of that ingredient you might actually be consuming, and whether you are ok with that amount or whether you would prefer to avoid it.
Check the ingredients – part two
Other things I’m thinking about when I’m checking out the ingredients list:
Can I actually pronounce what’s on that list? You should be able to. At the very least, you can probably recognize when something doesn’t sound like it’s naturally occurring.
Are there numbers? Numbers are not ingredients or components of food items occurring in nature. Red 5? Steer clear.
Would I cook with what’s on that list (or at the least, expect that a chef could cook with it)? If you could (conceivably) purchase and cook with each ingredient on the list, you probably have a less processed, more nutritious food on your hands. If an ingredient sounds like you might need to get it from a lab instead of a supermarket, you might not want to be putting it in your body.
The big exception: Many packaged foods are fortified with added vitamins. This is not always undesirable, as these particular additives can be highly beneficial to health and body function. But often what we might recognize as good stuff can be on an ingredient list under a different name – for example, Vitamin B2 is also known as riboflavin, a name that is definitely more chemical-sounding. If the ingredient list is pretty simple with one or two exceptions that you aren’t sure about, a quick Google search can tell you all about the mystery words!
Read the Nutrition Label
In Australia, certain information is required to be on a food label, including:
- The energy content: In everyday terms, this is the calorie count. The term Kilojoule is also becoming more popular. Both refer to how much energy the food provides.
- The protein content.
- The fat content, including the amount of saturated fat.
- The Carbohydrate content, including the combined amount of naturally occurring and added sugars.
- The sodium content.
- The amount of any other nutrient (or biologically active substance) about which a claim is made. For instance, if a package states a food give you B vitamins, it should list those vitamins on the nutrition label. Go look at your jar of Vegemite and you’ll see what I mean!
My goal in choosing a given food is to maximize the nutrient value while minimizing the calorie (energy) content. I primarily look at energy content and protein. If there isn’t a clear preferred choice, I’ll also check out total carbohydrates and relative amount of sugar, and lastly, total fat and how much of which kind(s).
I’ll also take into consideration the serving size, since the nutrition numbers mean nothing without that figure. And since often the serving size is just some random number, here’s my pro tip for figuring out if that “serving” is realistically what I’ll be eating: Look at the serving size compared to the total package size. For instance, if the total package weight is 400g and a serving size is 100g, I’ll consider whether I’m likely to eat a quarter of that package. If I think that’s unrealistic, but I still plan to buy that food, I’ll do some mental math – or get out my phone – and revise that nutritional data upward or downward as needed.
Lastly, when I have the option, I also like to compare the nutrition data from a few different brands of the same or similar products, since I’m usually shopping for something specific and I want the healthiest version. The “per 100g” column provided alongside the “serving size” column makes it way easier to compare which brand is going to meet my needs the best.
Ignore the rest of the packaging (In general)
Ever heard the saying “If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is”??
Simply put, many products that make health claims on the packaging miss the mark in other ways. Because low-fat, low-carb, or sugar-free products have often been processed to meet these claims, these foods are often additive-heavy to keep the food appealing when we actually eat it.
Call me cynical, but I generally regard health claims on food packages with suspicion. That specific claim may be true, but what in that food has been lost in order to meet that claim? Often what has been given up (or taken out) isn’t worth the “benefit” you get, particularly when other options are available. But that’s just one lady’s opinion!