Navigating a Supermarket: How to Read and Understand Nutrition Labels

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Understanding nutrition labels can be a lot like taking a pop quiz with a bunch of trick questions. While variety certainly has its benefits, the fact that we now have a million different brands to choose from every time we walk down the supermarket aisles can be a difficult experience even for the most well-intentioned shopper. Add to that the fact the buzzwords and seemingly appealing attributes slapped across the packaging make you feel like you’ve stepped your health game up just by considering them, and you end up with a veritable minefield.

According to the health community, the secret to successfully navigating a supermarket and nourishing yourself and your loved ones with food that is actually good for you lies in reading nutrition labels, but that’s easier said than done. What should you be looking for and what should you avoid? Here’s what you need to know.

What We've Been Told

You’ve probably heard these two pieces of advice more times than you’d care to remember: “Stay on the outskirts of the grocery store” and “Don’t eat anything containing ingredients you can’t pronounce.” While this is a great start, it fails to address the fact that there is far more to look out for than 12- and 16-letter words, and that it’s not always greens and matcha on the outer aisles – like that caramel dip that’s often sold right underneath the apples. What about sugary yogurt containing food coloring and other additives? The dairy section can be pretty much anywhere depending on where you shop. Remember that just because fruits, vegetables, and meats are usually found on the outer aisles doesn’t mean there won’t be some junk in the mix too.

Buzzwords

“All natural”, “no sugar added”, or “light” labels are actually very loose terms, so be wary and take extra caution when encountering these claims.

Natural
Assuming that the product was imported from the US, the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) guidelines for labeling a food as “natural” just require that no artificial ingredients be added to the food. However, the farming methods, whether or not it was treated with pesticides, and manufacturing methods are not considered in this criteria.

No sugar added
This label doesn’t mean free of sugar or low sugar as it might trick you into believing. It just means that there are naturally occurring sugars in the product, but that no sugars were added during production. See the blurred lines yet?

Low fat
Many companies will often compensate for the flavor lost from modifying the food to be lower in fat by adding more sugar or other sweeteners.

Organic
This label can automatically lead you to believe that you’re making a healthy choice and can therefore consume as much of this food as you like. While opting for organic potato chips versus a non-organic store brand is definitely the way to go, the difference in nutritional value between the two is probably going to be insignificant. Organic labels just mean that the food has not been bioengineered and was grown without the use of pesticides and synthetic chemicals. In short, yes, organic food is healthier for your body, however you should still practice portion control and pay attention to the serving sizes when making your selection.

If you see a buzzword, look very closely, and remember that the real natural foods (like fruits, vegetables, grains, and meats) don’t need to claim anything on the packaging.

The Tricky World of Meat Labels

Labels on meats, eggs, and dairy products can also be quite tricky to navigate, so here’s what you need to know.

Free Range
If you’ve seen documentaries like Food Inc., What the Health, and Fed Up, then you’re probably familiar with the upsetting visuals that are used to illustrate this label term and to demonstrate the fact that many farmers do not actually use a free-range approach as the term suggests, simply because they don’t have to.

Here’s the short story: With such a high demand for meat, factory farming is the fastest and cheapest solution to produce that amount. Livestock are kept in small cages where they are given growth hormones and antibiotics to speed up the growth process and maximize production. Living conditions are subpar, space is scarce, and germs and bacteria multiply in these environments. Just as there are loose parameters that stipulate what can be labeled “natural” or “organic”, “free range” doesn’t necessarily mean that the animal was roaming free and fed natural foods. The United States Department of Agriculture, the governing body that oversees and executes all laws and regulations related to food and farming, defines free-range as the following: “Producers must demonstrate to the Agency that the poultry has been allowed access to the outside.” That’s it. This loose criterion fails to address two crucial points: how much access to the outside are they getting, and for how longRead more about that here.

Grass Fed
You’ve probably seen this label on beef or sheep products, or on restaurant menus accompanying burger or steak items. One way the farming industry has been able to keep up with the demand for meat has been by feeding livestock a grain-based diet, with corn and soy making up a majority of their intake. Corn is cheap and high in sugar, which results in weight gain at a much higher rate. The faster the cow gets as fat as possible, the faster the farmer can sell it. However, this is not what these animals have evolved to eat for optimal health and it affects the quality and nutritional composition of their meat.

The shocker here is that there is no federal definition for “grass fed”, which is another reason to be skeptical about this term. Essentially, livestock can be fed a 95 percent grain-based diet, with only five percent of their food intake coming from grass, and that would allow the producer to label his meat as being “grass fed”. For more on the topic, click here.

Cage Free
A “cage free” label on eggs simply means that they were produced by hens kept in cages without walls – those same cages we touched on when discussing free-range products. The birds are usually still crammed into tight spaces with unfavorable and unsanitary living conditions. The label we should actually look for is “pasture raised”, which indicates that the chickens were free-roaming and ate a natural diet and that, therefore, the meat and eggs will have a higher nutrient density.

Serving Sizes

It’s possible for something to be low calorie or low fat in the context of one serving size, but that changes quickly when you’re consuming four times that amount. Are you really going to have just 16 Pringles? Can you trust yourself to only drink one third of this juice? Probably not. Be honest with yourself and mindful of how much an item will contribute to your daily intake.

Serving sizes are also typically based on a 2,000 calories-per-day diet, which is not exactly standard from one person to the next. A sedentary adult male is going to have different nutritional requirements to those of an active nursing woman. That’s why it’s so important to know your body and what it needs for optimal functioning and performance given your personal lifestyle, whether you come to know this information by gauging how you feel or by seeking advice from an expert.

Pringles Nutrition Label
A box of Pringles contains five servings, but the label only lists the nutrition facts for one.

Ingredients to Look Out For

 

Hidden Sugars
Hidden sugars are everywhere. In Ketchup, salad dressings, canned beans, yogurt, nut butters, flavored oatmeal, savory chips and snacks – you name it. What’s more, because sugar has essentially been all but demonized, food companies have been using sugar synonyms on their labels. Follow this rule: Any word that ends in “ose” is just a fancy word for sugar. Think: sucrose, dextrose, glucose, fructose, maltose, and so on. Agave, brown-rice syrup, corn syrup, barley malt, and cane juice are also just different ways of listing sugar. See all 61 names for sugar, here.

Trans Fats
If dehydrogenated oils are listed in the ingredients, it means that the food contains a trace of artificial trans-unsaturated fats, which raise your cholesterol and risk of heart disease when consumed frequently. “But wait,” you say! “The packaging reads zero grams of trans fats. How could that be?” Good question. When the food contains less than 0.5g per serving, food companies are allowed to round that number down to zero. So if you would naturally eat more than just what is listed as one serving on the box, you could actually be taking in a few grams unknowingly. What’s even worse is that, if this food is a staple in your diet, your cumulative intake of trans fats could end up being quite high, all because of that free pass given to the food industry.

MSG
MSG is another ingredient we automatically label as “bad”, but few of us actually know what it stands for, what it is, and why we should steer clear of it. Certain food companies have been known to take advantage of that by writing “monosodium glutamate” on their labels because they know it’s not a term most people will recognize. But guess what? It’s what is abbreviated to MSG.

This flavor enhancer (sounds legit, right?) is commonly found in certain Asian cuisines, as well as canned and highly processed foods, and has been known to cause stomach, gut, and other health issues. Some regulating entities have deemed it “generally safe”, but it remains controversial (2) (3).

The ‘E’s
You may have noticed strange combinations of numbers and letters lurking in the ingredients list of your label, like E105, E950, E503, and so on. These are called E-preservatives, or codes for food additives. The first number that follows the E in the code will tell you the purpose of the additive or preservative. The categories include color additives, preservatives, antioxidant and acidity regulators, thickeners, stabilizers, and emulsifiers; acidity regulators and anti-caking agents; flavor enhancers; antibiotics; miscellaneous; and additional chemicals. The next time you come across this, do a quick Google search to find out what it is and why it’s there.

The Rule of Three

Another thing to pay attention to is the order in which ingredients are listed. According to the FDA, ingredients on a food label are listed in descending order by quantity, with the first three ingredients usually being the most prominent. Have a look at a few labels the next time you go grocery shopping and see if anything surprises you; you might find that sugar is the number one ingredient in a lot of unexpected foods!

The Takeaway

Here are the cliff notes for your next grocery trip:

1) Start by reading the front of the package, and remember that “natural” or “low fat” don’t always mean it’s a healthy choice. Go a step further and read the back of the package too.

2) Check the serving size. If the food package you’re considering contains more than one serving, ask yourself if you’re going to stop at that or if you’re going to eat/drink it all in one sitting. If self-control is not your strong suit, you might be better off looking to see if the same food comes in a smaller pack.

3) If you’re watching your sugar intake, look out for those sneaky ingredients ending in “ose”.

4) Dehydrogenated oils and MSG are not your friends.

5) Generally speaking, the fewer ingredients an item contains, the better. Ideally, you want to be eating foods that come with no ingredient listings, like fresh fruits, vegetables, and meats. Incorporate more whole foods and eat fewer processed and manufactured products.

6) Pay more attention to the ingredients than to where the item is placed in the store.

7) If you’re not sure what something is, Google it. We’re all guilty of gripping our phones while pushing the shopping cart, so take the extra minute to understand what you’re putting in your body. You’ll thank yourself later.