Food labels are a b*tch. It’s not your fault if, like me, the more effort you put into making healthy choices at the grocery store, the more confused you get. Do you actually know the difference between organic and non-organic produce? Have you ever bought and enjoyed what you thought was a healthy snack, only to find out that it wasn’t as healthy as you thought? The simplest option would be to cut out packaged food altogether and grow everything we eat… but I don’t really see my husband and I leaving Miami for livestock and a farm. Plus, I have a weakness for Toaster Strudel.
So, if you’re like me and weren’t blessed with a green thumb or Old McDonald as a parent, take a look at these 4 steps to conquering food labels. While it is far from Nutrition 101, it just may help you sift through the BS marketing ploys and better determine your healthiest options.
STEP 1: Learn How To Read the Nutrition Facts
This may seem basic, and that’s because it is. But we’re in our twenties and that means that we still have a ton of basic shit left to learn. Like the fact that you should not wash cast iron pots with water… I inferred, from the condescending look on the Bed, Bath, and Beyond lady’s face, that this should be obvious, but it was certainly not obvious to me. My point is this: if you have already mastered food labels, wonderful! If not, your secret is safe with me. Hopefully, through this and other insights, I can spare you from having to ask about as many “obvious” basics as possible. In the meantime, do yourself a favor and check out the FDA’s idiot-proof guide to reading Nutrition Facts labels.
STEP 2: Consider the (often ridiculous) Serving Size
You can now read food labels! What a boss. Now, let’s consider the reality of our portions. Packaged foods are often littered with tricky labels, and the trickiest trick is the recommended serving size. Check your cabinets right now and I bet you will find more than one item with a serving size of half or a third the amount that a normal person consumes. This is especially true for individually sized drinks and cereals. (See Arizona Iced Tea and Captain Crunch. Ha!) Go ahead and mourn the loss of your ignorance and potentially some of your guilty pleasure snacks. But first, watch Buzzfeed’s tragic but brilliant investigative reporting on recommended serving sizes.
Once you know what to look for, the second part of this step is being honest with yourself. If you are set on indulging in chips with your lunch, choose the chip that allows you to have 25 chips for 100 calories rather than 7 chips. My favorite is the Special K Sea Salt Chips. YUM.
STEP 3: Limit Saturated Fat, Trans Fats & Sodium
Salty is one of my favorite words in the English language, but clogged arteries are among my least favorite clogged apparatuses. Therefore, I try to limit my sodium and trans fat intakes. Before, I would look at the Nutrition Facts only for calories and maybe ingredients if I was feeling extra responsible. I had no idea if 3g of fat was good or bad because I didn’t have a reference point.
Kathy McManus, RD, director of nutrition at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston suggests that we cap our intakes at 13g of Saturated Fat and 2000mg of sodium daily (based on a 1600 calorie diet). Trans fats should rarely appear in your diet. Curious about the differences between these evil fats? Read on, at ACalorieCounter.com.
STEP 4: Crack the codes on “All Natural”, “Low Fat” and “Organic”
We have to remember that the purpose of food labels is to help sell a product, not necessarily to protect our health and happiness. Too often, that translates into an abuse of these seemingly healthy terms. Here are some important definitions to know:
All Natural: One would assume that if something is all natural, it could not contain anything “unnatural” in it. One (unless you’re Neo from the Matrix) would be wrong. Prevention.com lists here, 7 100% Natural Foods That Aren’t. …gross.
Low Fat/Fat Free: According to the USDA, in order for something to be considered Low Fat, “Total Fat must equal 3g or less per 100g and must not exceed 30% of calories from fat.” Here’s where the trick comes in. Just because something doesn’t contain fat in its ingredients, does not mean that it won’t turn into fat once you consume it. Many brands smack this label onto their processed, sugary products to distract from the facts and convince you that it’s a healthier option than its competitors. You’ll laugh next time you go to eat Swedish Fish or Starburst.
Organic: Again, according to the all-powerful USDA, the goals of organic production range from “Promoting ecological balance” to “Fostering cycling of resources”, which sounds a little more like Pocahontas verbiage, rather than the government run USDA, so right out of the gate I have some suspicion. The jury is still out on whether the health benefits of Organic foods bought at a grocery store outweigh the extra cash you shell out. I admit that I am no expert on the processes but as far as labels go you should know the following: Only foods marked “100% ORGANIC” require all ingredients to be organic. “Certified Organic”, 95% and “Made with Organic”, 70%. As for me, I’m still unsure about Organic foods and their benefits but I encourage you to do more research and get back to me (or post in the comments!). For a brief analysis, see Lifehacker.com’s take on Organic.
Armed with these tools, I challenge you to experiment with your grocery shopping habits. Comment below about your experience with labels and by all means, entertain us with more outrageous serving size recommendations. I hope this information saves you time, energy, and calories because a healthy body is a happy one!