Let’s face it, even if we eat the best we can possible eat most of the time, we are still faced with reaching for a snack or food with a label. Traveling, meetings or events running longer than you thought, going to a party with very little options – these are times you may find yourself in a rut. Or you may just be looking for a healthy treat. Let’s assume you are looking at a label on a food that is being deemed “healthy”. The grocery stores are riddled with labels claiming “All Natural” (what does this even mean?), “Low Carb”, “Gluten Free”, “Low Glycemic”, blah blah blah. The more claims on the label, the more likely I am to not pick it up at all.
Reading labels is a waste of your time if you don’t know what the information really means. If you are misunderstanding some of the hype that is on the label, you can be working against yourself, your fitness and weight loss goals. Here are some of the common issues with labels:
- You are not sure what you are looking at. Let’s say the front of a bag says “gluten free” and “low sugar”. Gluten free is essentially announcing that the gluten intolerant, which is pretty much the vast majority of us, don’t have to worry about gluten being in this product. HOWEVER, gluten-free does NOT equate to healthy, low in sugar, and/or quality ingredients. Many things are also gluten free naturally. So the claim is no big excitement, but just a claim stating the obvious and used as a marketing ploy.
- You think low sugar means it is pre diabetic friendly. Low sugar does not mean low carb. In fact, often something has a tremendous amount of carbs with very little fiber or sugar, but a large amount of “other carbs”. This can be as impactful to your blood glucose as a high sugar content. Other carbs are the carbohydrates in the product that are not from sugar or fiber. Examples might be sugar alcohols, starches, white flours. Some are impactful to your glucose, others may not be. This is where reading the ingredients should reveal what is what. The sugar may be coming from dates or a fruit that is a seemingly “healthy” ingredient, if not excessive. The starch may be coming from flours that will convert quickly to sugar if not burned immediately.
- You are not reading the most important features. Some people don’t make it past the pretty label before they are throwing it in the cart. Often they see the front of the bag claims and they grab it without going deeper. I don’t know when non GMO or lactose free suddenly meant this was something everyone should eat! Ingredients are the key – a product in a bag or box is like an outline. You look at the title, followed by the subcategories. So your item, then the macronutrients (carbs, protein, fats) and micronutrients (vitamins/minerals) – and then down to the nitty gritty of what the item is made up of – the ingredients. Is the sugar coming from honey, fructose, agave, or naturally occurring in a fruit? Are the carbs coming from a fibrous ingredient like bran or maybe an “other carb” like wheat flour? Is the fat from a natural source like coconut or a fake, processed oil like partially hydrogenated soybean oil? I am able to look at the ingredients and not even need to review the label itself as I can guess what it will contain.
- You assume the quality and health factor has to do with where you are buying it. This is the biggest misconception of all. People walk in a Whole Foods or a Fresh Market and assume the products in that store must all be “healthy”! While Whole Foods is very particular about the types of items they will carry on their shelves, it does not mean they are only carrying foods that support weight loss goals, blood sugar stabilization, or food sensitivities. It’s all a spectrum. Whole Foods does not carry certain items with certain artificial sweeteners, but they will carry plant based sweeteners with artificial ingredients. For example, have you ever noticed Whole Foods only carries the Quest Bars that have Stevia as the sweetener? And they don’t carry chewing gum with sucralose? But, some of their Stevia packets have Dextrose. Never assume something is healthy because it is living on the shelf of a health food store.
Tips to stay on top of the label game:
- Look at ingredients FIRST. If there are more than 5 OR you cannot pronounce them, skip it.
- Net our your carbohydrates. Understand what ingredients are contributing to the carb count. E.g. If there are 30 carbs and 14 grams are sugar, where is the sugar derived from? What are the “other” carbs?
- Check the number of servings and serving size. If you can eat the whole bag in less than a minute – and it has 4 servings, probably better to pass on this. Portion control with packaged foods, even if they are “clean” is a challenge for most people. Especially, if it’s the portion size of your thumb!
- Read your labels no matter what the packaging looks like! Prettier does not equal healthier (even with a good name like “Lesser Evil”).
- IMPORTANT TO NOTE: Ingredients can be wonderful and clean, organic and from great foods – but the product can still be FULL of sugar. Make sure the treat is in line with your goals & consider if you can make something like it yourself!
The best advice? If God made it, eat it. If man made it, avoid it. Next best thing? If God made each ingredient, but man put them all together into one man made product – consider it!