Wednesday, June 17, 2015

The 3 Things I Look at When Reading Food Nutrition Labels

I was at Trader Joes this past weekend, and stumbled across some Gluten-Free Blueberry Muffins. I turned them over to read the label, and started laughing...


One, because I am a nerd.

And two, because, the first ingredient listed on the nutrition label was Cane Sugar...aka...Sugar.



This got me thinking about how I approach food nutrition labels. While I would love to shop at the Farmer's Market every week, I can't make it happen with my work schedule. I shop a lot at Trader Joe's for affordable staples (hello, raw almond butter!) and Whole Foods when I can (because it is dangerously located across the street from our apartment). 

I love grocery shopping, which is good for my boyfriend, who loathes it. Our grocery staples typically include coffee (priorities), eggs, chicken sausage, coconut water, greens, sweet potatoes, an assortment of nut butters, plantain chips (Brent is addicted), frozen fruit for smoothies, dried mango, larabars (trying to qualm my post-work late-night snacking), chocolate (#keepitreal), and more veggies.

I thought it'd be interesting to go over what I look for when I read labels; this isn't meant to be pointing out right and wrong or be exhaustive, but rather, highlight which aspects of food labels I pay attention to. 

1. The first thing I look at is the wording on the front label:

  • Is it organic? I really try to buy mostly organic, but if I am being honest, this does not happen 100% of the time. Here are some things I will not compromise on, however, meaning, I always buy organic:
    • Coffee - I love this one from TJs
    • Frozen and fresh berries
    • Apples
    • Frozen and fresh greens
    • Sweet potatoes, carrots, and other root veggies
    • Brown rice and quinoa (the primary grains we eat...when we aren't too lazy to cook them)
    • And finally, eggs: first and foremost, I buy pastured, free-range eggs. I always laugh when I see "vegetarian fed diet" Chickens ARE NOT vegetarians; they eat bugs! As they should. So don't be fooled by the label of "Fed a 100% vegetarian diet." 
  • When in doubt, this list of the Dirty Dozen, compiled by the Environmental Working Group, is incredibly helpful if you are trying to prioritize which foods to buy organic, and which to buy conventional. I love the EWG, as they provide wonderful, resourceful information for consumers, and recognize that many people cannot afford to buy all organic products.
  • If I am shopping at the Farmers Market, and notice that the farmers do not have a USDA Organic Seal, I simply ask the farmers if they spray their crops. The reason I do this is because becoming USDA Organic is a long, expensive process, that takes years for farmers to obtain; many small farms cannot afford to do so. If a farmer is selling beautiful, sweet strawberries, and tells me he or she doesn't spray them, I'm going to buy them! 



2. The second thing I look at is the list of ingredients, in their respective order: I don't buy a ton of processed food, but of the processed food I do buy, I pay attention to the order of the ingredients. Per the Food and Drug Administration guidelines, the ingredients on a food label must be listed in order of amount, with the most starting first. This is why I laughed when I saw cane sugar as the first ingredient on the so-called 'healthy' blueberry muffins. Here are a few of the ingredients I am noticing tend to show up on many labels, as of lately:

  • Corn / Canola / Soybean oils: These are processed, cheap-to-use, refined oils, rich in omega 6 fats. Now, we need both omega-6 fats and omega-3 fats in our diet. However, Americans tend to consume way too many omega-6 fats and not enough omega-3 fats, and this unbalanced ratio can lead to inflammation. I will occasionally buy products with corn or canola oil, but very rarely. Instead, I try to focus on eating healthy, balanced, fatty foods, like grass fed butter, avocados, nuts, seeds, and flax (which I strongly prefer to Chia...I know, I am weird). 
  • Carageenan: Carageenan is actually extracted from seaweed, and is used as a thickener in food products. You'll often see it listed on the food labels in products such as non-dairy milks, yogurt, or ice cream. There is a lot of controversy on the safety of carageenan as a dietary ingredient, especially because it has been associated with gut health issues. I like this article, by Chris Kresser, on the subject. Of course, this is one of the reasons why I love to make my own almond milk. But right now, I got 24 hours of summer school + 25 hours of work per week so...ain't nobody got time for that.
  • Yellow 5, Red 40, aka Fake Colorings/Food Dyes: This is one of my biggest pet peeves as a nutrition professional! I absolutely hate when I see a food label (or even, supplement label) that has fake coloring listed as an ingredient. Honestly, what is the point? If the food tastes good, shouldn't that be what matters? Who cares if it is bright red or yellow?  Did you know that the European Union has regulations on these food dyes, but the US doesn't? Food dyes are linked to a number of health issues, and thus, I avoid them, as I feel they are unnecessary. The Center for Science in The Public Interest did a lengthy report on the use of food dyes, which you can find here.

3. The third thing I look at is the amount of grams and types of sugar:

  • Agave 
  • Cane Sugar
  • Coconut Sugar
  • Corn Syrup
  • Beet Sugar
  • Date Sugar
  • Evaporated Cane Juice
  • Organic Raw Sugar
  • Sucrose
  • Brown Rice Syrup
  • Maple Syrup

  • These are all common names for sugar, just a few. Organic or natural or not - they are all sugars. Sugar is a controversial topic. And I think that the food industry is picking up on that, obviously, and trying to market products made with sugars such as maple syrup or brown rice syrup, as health foods. Don't get me wrong, I love maple syrup and I love dessert. But in the end, it's sugar too. 
  • I also wrote a post about making sure you watch out for overloading your 'green' smoothies with sugar. You can read it here.
  • It is especially important to pay attention to the amount of sugar when buying things such as yogurt/greek yogurt, nut milks, and so-called 'green juices.' I think that 20 grams of sugar in a small serving of yogurt is way too much. Here is the nutrition label for a Green Juice, marketed with the label "No Sugar Added."
  • Um...28 grams of sugar x 2 servings = 56 grams of sugar for a so-called green juice. Think about it: would you really eat 2 3/4 apples + 1/2 of a banana + 1/3 of a kiwi + 1/3 of a mango + a bite of pineapple in one sitting? Frankly, I would rather just eat 1 apple with some almond butter, and call it a day.

So, those are the top 3 things I look at when I read a nutrition label. 

Now you tell me, how do you look at food nutrition labels? Which things are most important to you?

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