Decoding Food Labels

Decoding Food Labels

The Health Conscious Series

The plethora of calorie-dense foods packed with unhealthy ingredients is a huge contributing factor to deteriorating health and obesity, particularly in America where more than 35% of adults are considered obese [1]. Most people do not want to live an unhealthy lifestyle, but it’s hard when there are so many apparent obstacles in the way, not the least being the complexity of food labels. In our Health Conscious Series, we want to show you how to practically live out the healthy life you’ve always wanted and move past anything holding you back.

With so many options at the grocery store, making healthy choices can be a daunting task. With an overwhelming array of products marketed as "healthy" or "all-natural," it's challenging to discern what is actually a nutritious and beneficial choice. The quest of shopping for healthy food often leads to confusion and frustration, as we find ourselves lost among the myriad of food labels and clever marketing strategies. Our goal is to show the importance of opting for whole, clean foods and why understanding ingredient labels is crucial for making informed choices.

Clean Eating 101: Whole Foods

Eating whole, clean foods is one of the most important parts of a healthy lifestyle. These foods are the ones that are minimally processed and free from artificial additives, preservatives, and harmful chemicals. They are rich in fiber, which aids digestion and helps maintain stable blood sugar levels. Plus, clean foods are usually lower in unhealthy fats, sugars, and sodium, reducing the risk of obesity, heart disease, and other chronic health conditions. Incorporating whole foods into our a daily diet ensures that we obtain essential nutrients, vitamins, and minerals that our bodies crave.

Nutrition is a big factor in preventing and managing chronic illnesses, and poor nutritional habits are a leading cause for conditions such as heart disease. Being able to interpret food labels has been linked to improving these kinds of conditions and developing a healthier lifestyle [2].

Crack the Code to Ingredient Lists

Think of an ingredient list on food packaging as your window into the true nature of a product. This list provides valuable insights into what you are putting into your body. And whatever you put into your body will determine your health.

When you first look at an ingredient list, it can be overwhelming. In fact, one survey of 838 people uncovered that 52.5% of them do not read ingredient labels while shopping and 57.7% do not understand the food labels [3]. The good news is, understanding a few basic facts about how to interpret ingredients can take all the mystery out of shopping.

Keep in mind, ingredients are listed in descending order of quantity, meaning the first few ingredients constitute the bulk of the product. If you spot a long list of unfamiliar, unpronounceable, or unhealthy ingredients, it's a red flag that the product might not be as healthy as advertised.

Reading Ingredient Labels:

  1. Look for Whole Ingredients: Seek products with simple ingredient lists that contain recognizable, whole foods. Fresh fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean proteins are all examples of desirable ingredients.
  2. Watch Out for Hidden Sugars: Sugar can hide under various names like high fructose corn syrup, sucrose, or dextrose. Choose products with minimal added sugars or opt for natural sweeteners like honey or maple syrup.
  3. Check for Artificial Additives: Avoid products with artificial colors, flavors, and preservatives. These additives can negatively impact your health and have been linked to various issues.
  4. Beware of High Sodium Content: Excessive sodium intake can contribute to hypertension and other health problems. Opt instead for products with lower sodium levels.
  5. Mindful of Fats: Choose products with healthier fats like those found in nuts, seeds, and avocados, and avoid trans fats and excessive saturated fats.
  6. Evaluate Serving Sizes: Pay attention to the serving size listed on the package. Sometimes the nutritional information can be misleading if the serving size is unrealistically small.

Here are some specific ingredients to keep your distance from while shopping:

  • Artificial Sweeteners: Aspartame, sucralose, saccharin, and other artificial sweeteners have no nutritional value and may have potential health risks.
  • High-Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS): HFCS is a highly processed sweetener linked to obesity and other health issues. It's often found in sugary beverages and processed foods.
  • Trans Fats: Avoid "partially hydrogenated oils" or any mention of trans fats, as they can raise bad cholesterol levels and increase the risk of heart disease.
  • Artificial Colors and Flavors: These additives offer no nutritional benefit and may be associated with hyperactivity and other health concerns, especially in children.
  • Monosodium Glutamate (MSG): An additive used as a flavor enhancer, MSG has been linked to adverse reactions in some people.
  • Sodium Nitrites/Nitrates: These preservatives are often found in processed meats and have been associated with an increased risk of certain cancers.
  • BHA and BHT: These synthetic antioxidants are used to extend shelf life but may have potential health risks.
  • Artificial Preservatives: Ingredients like butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA) and butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT) are used to prolong shelf life but may not be optimal for health.
  • Hydrogenated Oils: These are unhealthy fats formed through a process that turns liquid oils into solids. They are often found in processed foods and are best avoided.
  • Enriched Flour: Choose whole grains over products made with enriched or refined flour, as whole grains retain more nutrients and fiber.
  • Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs): These products have had their DNA altered using genetic engineering technology. If you prefer to avoid GMOs, look for products labeled as non-GMO or choose organic options.
  • Excessive Added Sugars: Watch out for products with high amounts of added sugars, as they contribute to various health issues, including obesity and diabetes.

Biggest Misleading Claims

When you walk down the aisle at your local store, buzzwords like “organic”, “cage-free”, “all-natural”, etc. float around every product. Unfortunately, many of these claims are misleading, hoping to persuade customers that by purchasing, they are making healthy choices [4]. Here are some of the most common misleading claims used on food labels and what they really mean:

  1. "All-Natural": The term "all-natural" can be deceiving, as it gives the impression that the product is entirely made from natural ingredients. However, there is no standardized definition for this term, and products labeled as "all-natural" may still contain artificial additives, preservatives, or high levels of sugar and sodium.
  2. "Low-Fat" or "Fat-Free": Products labeled as "low-fat" or "fat-free" may sound healthy, but often, the missing fat is compensated with added sugars or artificial ingredients to enhance flavor. These alternatives may not be better for your overall health.
  3. "Sugar-Free": "Sugar-free" products might not contain traditional sugars, but they can be loaded with artificial sweeteners, which can have their own set of health concerns and may not necessarily be a healthier choice.
  4. "Zero Trans Fat": While a product may claim to have "zero trans fat," it can still contain small amounts of trans fats (less than 0.5g per serving). Consuming multiple servings can lead to a significant intake of these unhealthy fats.
  5. "Organic": While the "organic" label implies healthier and more environmentally friendly options, not all organic products are necessarily free from unhealthy ingredients. It's essential to read the ingredient list and nutrition information.
  6. "Made with Whole Grains": A product labeled as "made with whole grains" may still contain refined grains as the primary ingredient. Always check the ingredient list for the presence of whole grains at the top.
  7. "Gluten-Free": While this claim is essential for those with gluten sensitivities or celiac disease, some gluten-free products can be highly processed and lack essential nutrients.
  8. "Fortified" or "Enriched": These claims suggest that the product is packed with added vitamins and minerals. However, fortified products may still lack the full spectrum of nutrients found in whole, natural foods.
  9. "No Added Sugars": Although a product may not contain added sugars, it can still be high in natural sugars, like those found in fruit juices. It's crucial to differentiate between added sugars and naturally occurring sugars.
  10. "Farm Fresh" or "Homegrown": These phrases evoke an image of fresh, locally sourced products. However, they are often used without any specific regulations or standards, leading to ambiguity.
When it comes to shopping, marketing often trumps authenticity. This makes finding genuinely healthy foods at the grocery store a challenge. However, by prioritizing whole, clean foods and understanding how to read ingredient labels, you can make more informed choices about what you consume. Journeying toward a healthier lifestyle begins with considering what we put into our bodies. So, the next time you venture into the aisles of the grocery store, arm yourself with your new knowledge and take the first step towards a healthier, more conscious way of eating.
And don't stop there! Keep working towards a healthier, better you with clean and wholesome nutrition. With Potion's naturally-sourced products, you are guaranteed pure ingredients that will make you feel whole.