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Thousands of years ago when we ate naturally, there were no nutritional labels. Our diets were based on hunting, and gathering fruits and vegetables, everything we ate was truly natural! As compared to today, where the majority of what we eat has been industrially processed, contains additives, preservatives, artificial coloring, and has been packaged. Many of these foods are what’s known as pseudo-foods, meaning, products that smell and taste like food but are of poor nutritional quality.
If you eat just to fill your stomach, perhaps this doesn’t worry you; but if you’re like me and you’re trying to search out quality foods that nourish your body to stay healthy then this will be very alarming!
Herein lies the importance of reading and – above all – understanding what the nutritional labels of the products we are buying tell us, to REALLY know what we are putting in our mouths. This is the real secret to guaranteeing a healthy purchase.
What Should We Watch Out For When Reading Nutrition Labels?
In general, food labels provide a lot of information, from the nutritional content to the ingredients all the way up to how it’s been handled. The idea is to go straight to the most relevant information to be more efficient at the time of purchase.
I know that at first, it may seem somewhat tedious, but I assure you that with practice, it will be a simple activity that becomes part of your routine.
First Things First, Portion Size!
One of the main things to look for when purchasing a product is the portion size, which is what the manufacturer describes as the “recommended individual serving size”. The figures are also shown per 100 grams.
Pay close attention to this information! It’s the one that is going to tell you what you really are consuming. To better explain, it’s not the same eating 25 grams of a product compared to 50. Many times the mistake lies with going straight to the nutritional content and not verifying how many grams of the product it takes to receive those nutrients. This is why you need to know the net weight of the package.
For example, I’ve seen many cases where people eat an entire bag of potato chips believing that they’re only consuming the number of nutrients that appear on the nutritional label, what they do NOT realize is, that this value is only for 45 grams of the product but, the entire bag is 180 grams. So what happens is that they end up eating 4 TIMES MORE than what they thought they were.
Calories AKA Energy Value
Another important factor to consider is the calories aka the energy value of a product. Keep in mind that calories are a guideline to measure whether or not the product is going to provide you with energy or not. More often than not people give this too much attention and really that’s not the way it should be, counting calories is useless.
The units of energy are expressed in kilocalories (kcal.), Calories (Cal.), and kilojoules (kj.). All of which define the energy contribution of the product, most well-known and managed are Calories.
Typically, we tend to be alarmed if we see that a product is a bit high in kilocalories, thinking that this will make us fat. However, what you really should be concerned about is where those calories come from and pay closer attention to the nutrients.
Carbohydrates are one of the most relevant pieces of information on the label. Look closely at where they are coming from just like with calories. For example, carbohydrates from a cake or some other over-processed food are not the same as those from an apple or banana.
To see where the carbs are coming from, meaning what ingredients are going to give us that energy source, it helps to read the list of ingredients- which I’ll speak about a little later on. Bear in mind that unfortunately, it’s NOT mandatory for all the nutritional values to appear on the label. For instance, starch is part of what makes up the group of carbohydrates however it doesn’t show up on labels very often.
Though, the most important piece of information we need to look at here is the sugar content. Without a doubt, one of the most important factors when deciding whether to buy a product or not. The negative effects caused by sugar, particularly refined sugars that provide no nutritional benefits and are just empty calories are well-known today. Which is why we always recommended products without any added sugars.
A fantastic addition to any food! Although fiber is highly recommended in a healthy diet, we must distinguish between fiber that is naturally present in a given food from that which is artificially added. So be especially careful here.
A trick to easily recognize this is, if you see words such as polydextrose, oligofructose or inulin in the list of ingredients, this is added fiber, usually to get that extra recognition in order to sell us it as “high fiber”. Similarly, products that are sold as “whole” like whole wheat or whole rice, need to be checked to make sure the ingredients truly are as they say. An example being, bread, is the raw material wholemeal flour, or does it just have fiber added to white flour?
Similar to what happens with calories, many people wrongly pay too much attention to fats and tend to think that fat content is harmful. Thus, they opt for something low-fat but it’s loaded with sugars or artificial sweeteners, which is more harmful to our health.
Don’t be afraid! Fats are not only good for our bodies they’re necessary. It’s true that what we must be careful about here is Transfats. It goes without saying that we need to check for this when choosing a product and avoid them at all costs. They’re not natural and are harmful to our health.
Transfats can be found in foods that are industrially made with vegetable oils (such as margarine), others include salty snacks, industrial pastries, empanadas, and so on.
Sodium is necessary for our bodies to function normally. The amount of sodium found naturally in food is not what should worry us, but rather it’s excessive use in industrial foods or even at home. This is often caused because salt improves the taste of a dish and stimulates our palate.
However, sodium promotes water retention, hypertension, and also makes cellulite more visible among other negative side effects. Ideally, we should be looking for foods with a low percentage of sodium.
Are The Ingredients And Their Order Down The List Important?
In addition to everything I just told you, it’s important to also look at the ingredients that make up a product and the order in which they appear on the label. Unfortunately, this not something people often take into account.
The ingredients are ordered according to their presence in the product, which goes from most to least. Again, this is important to keep in mind when deciding whether to purchase a product or not.
Also, it’s mandatory by law that the percentage of each ingredient appears on the label, especially the main ingredients according to the product name. This data is usually called “% Daily Value (% DV)”, and it shows us what percentage of each nutrient is in the product, compared to what the average recommended amount to eat in a day is. A DV above 20% is considered to be a HIGH contribution of the nutrient.
Watch out! Whether this is good or bad depends on your goals; for example, if you are looking to increase your protein consumption, eating a snack with a high protein intake could be more of a benefit.
The Marketing Behind Industrial Foods and Their Nutritional Labels
Behind every industrial product that has been marked as “light”, “fit” or “healthy” is a product filled with sugars and additives that are damaging to our health. The industry has carefully studied its marketing strategies to make us believe that what they are proposing are suitable products to nourish us properly.
Luckily, an ever-increasing amount of people care and are taking better care of their diets, so they know that sugar is something they should avoid as much as possible. Unfortunately, many companies have caught on to this and play around with the wording, replacing sugar with other synonyms such as corn syrup, maltodextrin, glucose, among others … Which is how they try to trick us and hope that it slips passed the consumer’s eye. Don’t be fooled!
Other ways they try and trick us are with products that are “low in sugar”, “sugar-free” or “low-carb”. Check these products out carefully so you can avoid buying things that have artificial sweeteners, which as we know are unhealthy too. This is something we see with sugar-free chocolates, the main ingredient is maltitol, which may be one of the least problematic sweeteners, but it’s still unhealthy.
And, What About The Parents?
Without a doubt, the easiest group the industry to trick are parents who are just considered with feeding their children. How many times have you seen a commercial advertising a box of cereal enriched with vitamins and iron? It’s just another trick so they keep buying their products which are in fact made of refined hydrates and whose main ingredient is sugar.
Knowledge is Power
All of the reasons we listed above is why you should start paying attention to the nutritional labels on the products you buy. They highlight all the necessary information you need to know about the foods you eat. They’re the best tool to help you choose products that will make you feel good and avoid ingredients that are harmful to your health.
Remember that beautiful packaging is not synonymous with health. Don’t be fooled! Being strict about what you expect from a product is what will keep you and your’s healthier and eating better.