Food Labels: It Looks Good, But What’s Inside

Food Label
Photo by oskay via Flickr

When many of us go grocery shopping, our purchases are driven by our senses.  We shop by what looks good at the moment, instead of considering what is inside the product.  If an item looks or smells good, it often ends up in the basket.  But, for those of us that are trying to be healthier and make improvements to our diet, we need to take that extra step and make the time to read the food labels also. Otherwise, we might buy a product that is harmful to our health.

Food labels are regulated
In the United States, food labeling is regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).  So, you know that what you are reading is consistent and easy to read.  These agencies make sure that all food labels have the same health and nutritional information, so that it is easier for the consumer to compare products and choose one that is right for them.  They also regulate most health claims that companies put on their foods, such as organic, fat-free, reduced, lean or light.  Any labeling claims must meet government standards.  For example, a product that states that they are USDA organic, must have at least 95% organic ingredients in them.  Anything less wouldn’t be allowed to use that designation.

Know what you are eating
Food labels are a great way to improve your diet. They give you the information necessary to choose healthier items.  They can alert you to the fact that a food item contains too much fat, cholesterol, sodium, sugar or other unwanted ingredients.  But, even though the labels have such great information, people sometimes make the wrong purchasing decisions because they misread or misunderstand what is written on the label.  So, here are a few tips for the next time you read a food label.

  1. Read the whole label: Don’t concentrate solely on the calories in a product.  You won’t get the whole picture that way.  You need to look at the complete picture.  One item might be lower in calories than another, but be extremely high in fat or sugar.
  2. Look at the serving size: All the information on the nutrition label is based on the serving size. Sometimes the serving size is less than what you would normally consume.  So, take note of that.  If you eat or drink everything in the package, you might be getting significantly more calories, fat, or sugars than what you were expecting when you glanced at the label before.
  3. Limit your intake of saturated fats or trans fats: Under “Total Fat” on the nutrition label, unsaturated fats, saturated fats and trans fats will be listed.  Saturated fats and trans fats have been shown to increase cholesterol levels and your risk of heart disease.  It is best to stay away from or limit your consumption of these types of fat.  Instead, look for unsaturated fats.  They are healthier fats to consume.
  4. Limit your intake of sodium: Some of the foods that you think are healthy, might be loaded with sodium.  Two good examples are soups and vegetable juices.  But, those aren’t the only items to beware of.  Many other canned or processed products are also loaded with sodium.  Remember, sodium intake should be less than 2400 milligrams a day for an average, healthy adult.  Since a high intake of sodium is associated with high blood pressure, opt for low sodium alternatives whenever possible.
  5. Limit your intake of sugars: A lot of sodas, candies and snack foods have a lot of sugar, but not much else.  They tend to offer little nutritional value, only empty calories.  So, try to stay away from or limit your intake of these products.
  6. Limit your intake of food additives: Look at the ingredients list.  It should be easy to read.  If you need a chemistry degree to understand the label, then that food is probably not the best thing for you to eat.  Also, try to stay away from artificial colors and sweeteners.  Instead, try to find products made with real fruit juices and natural sugars.
  7. Choose foods that are high in vitamins, minerals and dietary fiber: This will give you a product that is not only filling (fiber makes your full), but healthy to eat.

On your journey to being healthier, food labels are a great tool that should be used when picking products. Don’t be deceived by looks. The labels will tell a much more accurate story.  So, take the time to read them, make better choices and become healthier!

Comments (9)

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  1. Mark says:

    I just printed this one out! Great tips! thank you!

  2. I was just reading an interesting story over on the Gyminee.com blog about a new nutritional scoring system, ONQI, that basically gives food a 1-100 rating. This seems like an interesting idea. Especially for the people who are not normally label readers. If I saw that my favorite snack scored 8 out of 100, that summation might make me think about what I’m buying more than seeing a bunch of numbers on a label. I think there are definitely limitations in summing it up, but it is definitely worth looking at.

    Here is some more info: http://www.nuval.com/.

  3. Talli van Sunder says:

    George, thanks for bringing that system to my attention. I’ve never heard of it before and might have to look at it more later. It sounds like an interesting concept, which could work out for a lot of people if they have access to the numbers when they are looking at food.

    This scoring system might be good for someone looking at two different foods and wants to know which is the better choice. But, for people who are looking to eliminate certain things from their diet, such as fat or sodium, might not get the information they need from that scoring system. So, it really depends on what your needs are as far as nutritional information goes. It might work for some and not for others.

  4. Great post, Talli!
    I’m a label reader myself -especially having a little one. I always check for HFCS – sodium, & basically everything you mentioned. It’s surprising what you’ll find out by reading the labels. It can really save your health!

  5. Blake says:

    I’ve gotten into the habit of always reading labels, and my wife reads them too. Thanks!

  6. Rosy says:

    I have tried to limit processed foods, period. One of the things that Bob Green has taught me (watching Oprah) is that if you are going to pick a processed food, pick something with 5 ingredients or less, ensuring that you understand these ingredients and healthy for you. It was a great tip, just like this blog post. Thanks, Talli!!!

  7. Diane says:

    Great post. Reading food labels may not be riveting, but it’s the only way to see through the marketing hype. For example, cans of soup that say only 120 calories per serving then you realize the can is 2 servings….who only eats half the can??

  8. […]  Food Labels: It Looks Good, But What’s Inside | Being Healthy for Busy PeoplePosted by mugecerman via Twshot   […]

  9. […] be what you are looking for or sometimes might be a little misleading.  So, make sure to read the food label and the ingredient list to see if the product truly passes your health […]

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