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Food Label Decoding
Many food manufacturers use front label trickery to insinuate that their brands are healthy. Don’t be fooled – turn the packages over and read the ingredients and Nutrition Facts. Taken together, the information on all three labels will help you make the healthiest food choices.
You’ll quickly see that many food items actually have hidden trans fats and high amounts of sodium, preservatives, and artificial flavorings. They are anything but healthy.
These are some food label definitions from the US Food and Drug Administration. Be warned that many manufacturers list saturated fat content by volume of weight. This can be confusing as fats have a much higher calorific value than other foods (9 calories per gram).
FAT FREE - The product has less than .5 grams of fat per serving
LOW FAT - The product has 3 grams or less of fat per serving
REDUCED or LESS FAT - The product has at least 25% less fat per serving than the full-fat version
LITE or LIGHT - This one is ambiguous and can have a number of meanings:
CALORIE FREE - The product has less than 5 calories per serving
LOW CALORIE - The product has 40 calories or less per serving
REDUCED or FEWER CALORIES - The product has at least 25 percent fewer calories per serving than the non-reduced version.
Front Label Trickery
“Fortified”, “enriched”, “added”, “extra”, and “plus” usually mean the food has been altered or processed in some way.
“Fruit drinks” usually means little or no real fruit and a lot of sugar. Instead look for products that say “100% fruit juice”.
“Made with wheat,” or “rye,” or “multi-grains” imply that it’s a good source of whole grains, but unfortunately, don’t tell you how much whole grain is actually in the product. Look for the word “whole” before the grain to ensure that you are actually getting a 100% whole-grain product.
“Natural” or “made from natural” simply means the manufacturer started with a natural source. Once processed, the food may not resemble anything “natural.”
“Organically grown,” “organic,” “pesticide-free,” and “no artificial ingredients” say very little about the nutritional value or safety of the product. Trust only those labels that say “certified organically grown.”
“Sugar-free,” “sugarless,” or “no added sugar” tells you nothing about sugar derivatives or sugar substitutes, which yield just as many calories as table sugar and may be more harmful to you than sugar
Okay, now that you know how to decode the front labels, the real proof is in the pudding—the ingredients list. Here’s where you’ll find the hidden saturated and trans fats, sugars, sodium, artificial flavorings, and refined grains. Ingredients are listed in order of most to least amounts. That means the first ingredient will be in the largest quantity. The second is the second most and so on.
When decoding the ingredients list label watch out for these “evildoer” ingredients whenever possible:
There are many more ingredients that we could list, but in the interest of saving space, here’s a rule of thumb: if a food item is packed with lots of ingredients that you can’t pronounce (they are artificial sounding) and it includes trans fats, you should look for a better food choice. Try to stick with products that are made from whole foods, with little to no preservatives, and with little to no artificial sounding ingredients, and definitely no trans fats.
There are over 20,000 food items in the average grocery store, trying to find the truly healthy brands is like looking for a needle in a haystack—unless you know how to decode the labels on the packaged food items.
Thanks to Jenny McLeod, author of The Last Diet Book Standing. Jenny has created a comprehensive list of best brands that can be found in her book. She has done the legwork by scouring the grocery store shelves and reading all the labels in order to find the healthiest brands that are tasty and available in most grocery stores. This list covers everything from cereals, breads, crackers, chips, pastas, soups, meats, dairy, and even desserts!
Last updated 06 Sept 2012