Do you glance over food labels, but get a bit confused with what you're really looking for?
With clever marketers working their magic to entice you to buy their products, buying healthy is tricky business. You must learn to look through the pretty pictures and misleading claims, and instead read the fine print to ensure your shop is a healthy one.
Where and how you source your food shopping is such an important factor in gaining and maintaining optimal health for you and your family. Read on to be equipped with important food label reading skills. It will save you time and give you the confidence to know you’ve made the best choice for you and your loved ones.
Where To Start
Buying foods in the whole food form, such as fresh vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, dried legumes, eggs and fresh meats is the most nutritious option when purchasing foods, to make up your daily meals from scratch.
Secondly, aim for these whole foods in a slightly processed form such as ground dried spice and nut flour.
Then there are times when you will need to reach for items that are canned, bottled and packaged, such as nut milks, tinned tomato paste and canned coconut cream. Here I will shed some light on creating the best possible food choices by reading food labels and making healthy choices with what makes it to your shopping basket.
Turn It Over
The front of food labels lack any nutritional information. To really know what the food item is made up of, you'll need to turn the food item over and take a squiz at the back, or side label.
Here you should firstly look at the Ingredients List and second the Nutritional Information Panel (NIP). The ingredients list, should ultimately be made up of foods that you recognise as healthy and you would otherwise eat separately in your diet.
Would you use these ingredients to make something up at home? If not, leave it on the shelf.
Foods listed first on the ingredients list are the most abundant ingredients within that food item. Other ingredients are listed in a descending order of weight. Scan through the list to identify ingredients that may be compromising you and your loved ones health.
Sugar can be found on the ingredients list as Brown sugar*, Corn syrup*, Dextrose, Disaccharides*, Fructose*, Fruit (any kind), Glucose, Golden Syrup*, Honey, Lactose*, Malt*, Maltose*, Mannitol*, Maple syrup, Molasses, Monosaccharides*, Raw sugar*, Rice Malt syrup, Sorbitol*, Sucrose*, Stevia and Xylitol (look for birch derived).
Avoid food items where these sugars* are featured high on the ingredients list. Although high amounts of any sweetener is too much of a good thing, the other sweeteners listed above have a lower impact on your blood sugar levels, insulin production and therefore are better option to look for.
High Fructose Corn Syrup and Agave
These are extremely high in fructose (around 70-90%) and therefore contribute to insulin resistance and liver damage.
Trans Fats/ Partially Hydrogenated Oils
Used to enhance the flavour, texture and shelf life of foods, trans-fats are an altered form of unsaturated fat, which the body cannot recognise. Known toxic effects in the body include heart disease, obesity, diabetes, age-related macular degeneration, Alzheimer’s, compromised immune system, cancer, fertility problems with both men and women and low birth weight babies.
You can identify trans-fats on the ingredients list of foods such as fried foods, pastries, baked goods, margarine, vegetable shortening, chips, microwave popcorn, chcolate drink mixes, powdered milk, long life milk, powdered egg and frozen dinner meals.
Look out for on the ingredients list:
- vegetable oil
- hydrogenated oil and/ or partially hydrogenated oil
Also keep foods containing highly refined, rancid (damaged) industrial seed oils, on the shelf. This includes soy, vegetable, cottonseed, sunflower, safflower oil, wheat germ, corn and canola oil.
Food Additives have been linked to many health conditions, including behavioral issues, hormonal imbalance, psychiatric problems, cardiovascular conditions, neurodegenerative diseases and cancer. Food products, which contain any of the ingredients below, should be avoided.
You’ll find this one in many white flours and baked goods.
Common Food Dyes/ Colours
- 102/ Tartazine
- 129/ Allura Red
- 104/ Quinoline Yellow
- 132/ Indigotine
- 107/ Yellow 2G
- 133/ Brilliant Blue
- 110/ Sunset Yellow
- 142/ Green S
- 122 Azorubine, Carmoisine
- 143/ Fast Green FCF
- 123 Amaranth
- 151/ Brilliant Black
- 124 Ponceau, Brilliant Scarlet
- 155/ Brown HT
- 127/ Erythrosine
- 160b/ Annatto
- 200-203/ Sorbates
- 210-213/ Benzoates
- 220-228/ Sulphites
- 249-252/ Nitrates and Nitrites (preservatives in meat).
- 280-282/ Propionates
- 310-312/ Gallates
- 319-321 / TBHQ, BHA, BHT
- 620-625/ Glutamates and MSG
Note: these are commonly hidden in other ingredients such as autolyzed yeast, textured protein, gelatin, “natural flavors”, barley malt and soy sauce.
All Artificial Sweeteners
- Saccharin (#954, Sweet ‘N Low, Necta Sweet)
- Cyclamate (#952)
- Aspartame (#951, Phenylalanine and aspartic acid) (Equal, NutraSweet)
- Acesulphame Potassium, also known as Acesulphame-K and Ace K (#950, Sunnet, Sweet One)
- Sucralose (#955, Splenda)
Genetically Modified Foods
In Australia, products must contain the label “Genetically modified”, next to the particular food, if they have been grown in a way that involves genetic modification.
Eg. ‘Genetically modified soybeans’/ ‘Soybeans’ (genetically modified). Exemptions unfortunately have been made by Food Standards Australia New Zealand. You can get more information about these exemptions on the Food Standards website:
- Cotton, canola and safflower are genetically modified crops, which are grown in Australia.
- Imported GM foods include soybeans, corn, rice, potatoes and sugar beet. More info found here.
The safety of these foods is still up in the air, as they have not been around long enough to undertake long term health studies. Just imagine this however... a crop that is herbicide resistant- that means unlimited amounts of herbicide may be used on the plant (that you will ultimately be eating), to control weeds. I know I would want to keep that one off of my plate.
What You Want
Whole foods such as nuts, seeds, fruits and vegetables have natural levels of fibre, therefore will always be a healthier option than processed foods. If you’re picking up a packaged item (lets hope it’s a super food bar of some sort), grab for those that contain fibre, to help with blood sugar regulation as well as regulating healthy digestion and detoxification. Aim for 5gm or more fibre per 100gm of food item.
The Good Fats
Look for the good fats. On the Nutrition Information Panel, you want to see omega 3 fatty acids (found in fish, leafy greens, walnuts, pumpkin, chia, flax and grass fed meats), some omega 6 fatty acids (found in grain, nuts and seeds), omega 9 fatty acids (found foods such as avocado, macadamias, sesame and olives, as well as saturated fats fund in coconut, ghee, butter, cheese and animal fat), as the featured fats in your food item. No, that was not a typo- saturated fats are nourishing for your body, including your brain, hormonal, digestive, immune and cardiovascular system relying on their existence, for proper function.
Omega 6’s (from grains, seeds and nuts) are however pro-inflammatory and generally consumed in indulgence in a westernised diet. To get the most nutritionally from omega 6’s, aim for a 1:1 ratio with omega 3’s in your diet.
If the food item has been heated during processing, the nutritional benefits of omega 3’s, and omega 6’s and omega 9s, found in nut and seed oils, as well as olive oil (at high temps), will likely be overwhelmed with dangerous trans fats.
Trans-fats, or partially hydrogenated oils, are damaging to your health, so keep foods labeled including them, well away from your shopping basket. Look for any level of trans fats on the Nutritional Information Panel (NIP). Low levels of trans-fats can unfortunately still be present, without levels having to be stated on the NIP label. This is why it is important to look for listing of partially hydrogenated oil, hydrogenated oil, margarine, and/ or vegetable shortening on the ingredients list, as well.
Other rancid, pro-inflammatory industrial seed oils to avoid on food labels, include canola, soy, cotton seed, grape seed, rice bran, vegetable, corn and safflower oil.
For optimal health, avoid relying on packaged powders, canned and/ or bottled foods for your daily protein. Instead aim to receive adequate protein over the day, from wholefoods. In times when fresh protein is not available, look for smaller tinned or jarred fish. Pea, rice or hemp protein powders could also be used to top up your protein requirement- just check those labels.
While pregnancy and breastfeeding are times where regular protein consumption is important to nourish you and bubs, I otherwise encourage you to experiment with your optimal amount of protein over your day.
On the Nutritional Information Panel, look for these ones:
Not all sodium is bad for you. When sodium is balanced out with other minerals, as it is in vegetables and meats, along with unprocessed Himalayan, Peruvian Pink, or Celtic Sea salt, this type of salt is nourishing and required for good health. Better yet, Himalayan salt with added seaweed to supply adequate iodine for your hormone health. I use this one.
Sodium added to canned, bottled or packaged foods, will often be processed, bleached sodium chloride and added in levels that far out weight our recommended daily intake. When looking at food labels, be aware that, the total recommended daily intake of salt for an adult (added to meals, in any pre made foods, and used in your own cooking) is 2300 mg sodium. Many people however are sodium sensitive, therefore they should limit salt consumption to around 1000mg sodium daily.
Keep an eye on this by looking for the sodium per 100gm of food item on the Nutritional information Panel.
Note that 1 tsp of salt is equivalent to 2400mg sodium. This adds up very quickly when eating take-away, dining out, eating packaged, canned and bottled foods. To balance this out concentrate on consuming plenty of potassium rich foods in the form of all fresh vegetables (particularly green leafy’s), avocado, banana, nuts and sunflower seeds.
As previously discussed, opt for food items that contain natural sugars. The next step is to aim for those foods with the lowest amount of sugar, per 100gm. Optimally, 5gm per 100gm, on the Nutrition Information Panel is a healthy amount that will prevent inflammatory producing blood sugar and insulin surges.
Watch out for clever marketing hype that may trick you, the consumer, into believing the product is healthy, but really has no benefit to your health.
- “All natural ingredients”
- “100% natural”
- “No artificial preservatives”. Instead the product most probably contains real preservatives!
- Images of health foods such as vegetables and fruits on the label. To be sure you know what is in the product, you must read labels.
- “All Organic”/ “Organic”. You must look for the organic certification to be sure assured the product is free from antibiotics, growth hormones, pesticides, chemicals and irradiation.
- “Local”. You once again need to look at the label to see if any of the ingredients are imported. Buy from local farmers markets or stores which support them, for the best assurance of a true local product.
- “Active cultures”, “beta-glucan”, “plant sterols”, “vitamin enriched”, when the food item is also riddled with sugar, salt, trans-fats, and other additives. Often companies try to distract your attention with clever enticing health wording. A common one being margarine titled ‘rich in plant sterols’, however is loaded with detrimental trans-fats.
- “No/ Low cholesterol”. Cholesterol itself is not an issue within foods, as this has little impact to the dangerous oxidized cholesterol levels in the blood. Sugars are a more important to watch for (in the ingredients list).
- “Fortified”/ “Added vitamins and minerals”. These are synthetic and do not make an unhealthy food any healthier. Opt for your fresh, whole, real foods to gain a generous amount of your daily-recommended vitamin and mineral content.
- “Sugar free”, as these items are likely to contain dangerous artificial sweeteners.
- “Low fat” or “fat free”, as these products will naturally contain more sugar per 100gm/ml of food item.
Wrapping It Up
Although importance lies in buying predominantly whole and real foods, when you are next in need to grab a few ‘convenience’ packaged, bottled or caned foods, use this information to help you buy the healthiest option for your loved ones.
You can find further guidance for nourishing your body throughout your hormone balancing, preconception, pregnancy or breastfeeding journey over here.