We all know not to judge a book by its cover, but you should judge a food by its label.
While we always advocate for the majority of your diet to be non-processed, “real” food that doesn’t require an ingredient list or product label, most food is labeled.
Chris Kresser says it best: “Carrots are carrots, apples are apples, and you don’t need a label to tell you that. But, aside from produce, most foods in the grocery store do have nutrition labels, ingredients lists, and marketing phrases. Learning how to decipher this information to make healthy choices is an important skill.”
Nutrition labels on food can be extremely confusing and feel overwhelming to try and interpret, especially when you’re embarking on a new health journey. So, to make things easier for you, we’re sharing our 3-step process to help you learn how to judge a food and read the package labeling.
Our 3-Step Process for Judging a Food
1. Review the Ingredient List.
When looking over the ingredient list, it’s important to keep in mind that the ingredients are listed by quantity, highest to lowest. Then, try to follow these recommendations:
- It’s best if all ingredients are real foods and things you could find in your grandma’s kitchen.
- Avoid packaged foods that contain soy, industrial seed oils (i.e. canola and soybean oil), and “bleached, enriched flour”.
- Avoid additives. (i.e. Gums, carrageenan, MSG, and food dyes/coloring)
- Avoid the toxic sugars. While there are over 60 different names for sugar, some of the most common sugars to avoid include: Sucrose, Fructose/High Fructose Corn Syrup/HFCS, Brown Rice Syrup, Cane Juice/Evaporated Cane Juice, Corn Syrup, Dextrose, and Maltose/Malt Sugar.
- Be skeptical of foods with a long list of ingredients, and aim to purchase products that include 5 ingredients or less.
2. Read the Nutrition Facts Section.
- Contrary to popular practice, we don’t pay much attention to the total calories. We’re more concerned about the quality of the food you’re eating than the calorie count.
- Look over the macronutrients like protein, fat, and carbs to determine if they make sense for the particular product. Real foods should generally include the nutrients you would expect. For example, if purchasing a protein bar, it should contain good sources of protein and fat. Whereas, if purchasing applesauce, you’d expect it to contain more carbs than protein and fat. Though it may sound obvious, over-processed foods don’t always match up.
- Calculate the difference between the total carbs and fiber because this will reveal the actual sugar content. We encourage you to aim for products with a minimal amount, and remember, the sugar quickly adds up:
- 4 grams of sugar on a label = 1 teaspoon sugar
- 12 grams = 1 tablespoon
- 25 grams = 1/8 cup
- 50 grams = 1/4 cup
- 100 grams = 1/2 cup
- Pay attention to the serving size. It can often be misleading and unrealistic because “manufacturers often list a much smaller amount than what most people consume in one setting.” This deceives the consumer into thinking that the food they’re consuming contains less sugar and fewer calories.
3. Identify Any Label Claims on the Packaging.
Not only are front labels used to lure people into buying products, but many marketing terms are often associated with improved health to “mislead consumers into thinking that unhealthy, processed food is good for them” (i.e. Low-Fat, Enriched, Heart Healthy, Low-Sodium, Gluten-Free, etc.) Disregard the marketing claims, but pay attention to the labels below.
Labeling rules are constantly changing and intentionally ambiguous. So we recommend that you use our interpretation as a general guide to help lead you in the right direction:
- USDA 100% Organic or USDA Organic – Products with either of these labels contain a minimum of 95% of certified organic ingredients. This isn’t true of products labeled as “made with” organic ingredients or if specific organic ingredients are listed.
- Non-GMO Project – This is better than conventional but please prioritize organic, because organic means Non-GMO, but Non-GMO doesn’t have to be organic. While Non-GMO assures the consumer that the product was produced without “genetic engineering and its ingredients are not derived from GMOs,” Non-GMO grains are usually still sprayed with glyphosate at harvest. (To learn more about Glyphosate, Monsanto and GMOs, check out the 10-minute video we recorded a couple of years ago.)
- Grass-finished or 100% Grass-fed – These animals receive a grass or foraged diet their entire lives. Grass-fed animals without the clarifying “finished” or “100%” may still receive grains in their final weeks.
- Wild Caught/Pole Caught – These fish are caught by fishermen in their natural habitats vs. farm-raised that may be genetically modified and raised with an unnatural diet and antibiotics.
- Pastured/Pasture Raised – This means that the animal was either truly raised outdoors or was given continuous access to the pasture. Prioritize this over the marketing claims “Free Range” and “Vegetarian Fed”.
- The “9” Prefix on Produce – Produce won’t be stamped with a USDA organic label. Instead, it will list the number 9 prefix on the produce Price Look-Up Code (PLU) label to ensure the item is organic.
4. Bonus Tip…
To help further minimize any confusion while navigating your shopping and helping you to select the best brands, we highly recommend using the Weston A. Price Shopping Guide or Real Food App.
They take the guesswork out of buying the most natural, nutrient dense and traditional foods by organizing foods into 30 categories with “Best,” “Good,” and “Avoid” rankings. They also include brand names for finding the healthiest foods in supermarkets, health food stores, by phone, and online.
Click here to get the downloadable shopping guide or real food app.
This information is not to provide medical advice or to take the place of medical advice and treatment from your personal physician. Consult your own doctors or other qualified health professional regarding the treatment of your medical problems. Those taking prescription medications should consult with their physicians and not take themselves off of medicines to start supplementation without the proper supervision of a physician familiar with nutritional supplementation.
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