Over the years, I’ve developed a deep interest in nutrition. I’m captivated by how the food we eat impacts everything from our energy levels to sleep and mental clarity. Planning for and eating a balanced diet can be the difference between feeling strong and healthy and barely making it through the day without crashing. Before we can paint a clear picture of balanced nutrition in our diets, we must first understand what we’re eating.
There are two ways I’ve found to feel confident about what I’m eating.
- Eating whole foods
- Reading nutrition labels
If you’ve read my post on clean eating, you know my feelings about building a diet focused mainly on eating real food. But the reality is that virtually nobody is going to be able to prepare all of their meals at home from whole ingredients. Packaged snacks and food items have the benefit of convenience. But they can also be a good source of nutrition if you become a label reader and make smart choices.
The relatively recent past of nutrition labeling
We’re so accustomed to seeing a nutrition label on every box in the store that it’s hard to believe it got its start as recently as the 1970s. The rise of processed food in the 50s and 60s created an environment where consumers needed a way to understand what was showing up on grocery store shelves. Since this time, many revisions have taken place, with information added and removed from the label over time. There has also been legislation to try to standardize manufacturer health claims and what legally meets criteria for a food label to say “healthy.”
What does a nutrition label include?
The most recent legislation for the nutrition facts label was in 2016 with required adherence by all manufacturers by 2021. There are a few key changes to the latest label, the largest of which is the inclusion of added sugars. You can see in the FDA’s side by side label comparison below that there is also a new emphasis on serving size and calories. The lack of attention to which are potential reasons for the current obesity epidemic.
My journey to becoming a label reader
I started reading labels in my mid-twenties when I was toying around with the idea of veganism. (Thanks in large part to a few too many Netflix documentaries.) My primary mission in reading nutrition labels in my first few trips to the store was to determine which foods contained animal products and which did not.
I was shocked at the prevalence of dairy in some form or another in many of my everyday food items. It wasn’t just the obvious players like butter, milk, ice cream, and yogurt, but things I wasn’t expecting to find dairy in like salad dressing, granola bars, crackers, and pasta sauces. I learned so much by reading nutrition labels, and it piqued my curiosity.
As my eating habits have continued to change over the years, I’ve begun to rely heavily on the nutrition facts panel to inform me about what I’m purchasing. My husband can attest to the fact that it’s a primary driver in purchasing decisions for our household (and I think I’ve finally got him reading the labels too!).
My rules for reading labels
What started as an adventure in veganism soon became a mission to understand what exactly I was putting in my body. With whole fruits and vegetables, there’s no need to worry. If I’m eating an apple, it’s an apple, and it contains all the natural ingredients that make up an apple. I wasn’t concerned with added sugars or enrichment. But if I picked graham crackers off the shelf (oh how I miss your crunchy deliciousness graham crackers), I’d see something like this:
There are a few things that are serious red flags on any package. If I see any of the following on a label, I’m instantly wary and probably not going to make the purchase.
- AND/OR – If I made you cookies and told you I made them with soybean oil AND/OR coconut oil, you’d probably ask me what that means. You might think, “This girl has lost her marbles if she can’t remember the cooking oil she used.” But this is so incredibly common. I’ve picked up bags of chips that say canola oil AND/OR sunflower oil AND/OR safflower oil. The damaging effects of industrial seed oils aside, if you don’t know what you used in making the food, why should I trust that I can eat it?
- Enriched – It sounds like they’re doing us a favor right? They’re enhancing the ingredients for us so we can be healthier, right? Wrong. Enriched is the food industry’s way of saying, we’re going to add back some stuff that we took out during processing to preserve shelf life. Enriched also typically means the inclusion of folic acid, which is another reason I steer clear. Since I have the MTHFR mutation, my body can’t process folic acid, and I choose to supplement with methyl folate instead.
- Partially hydrogenated – When you see these words, it’s another way of saying trans fat. Trans fats raise bad cholesterol (LDL) and create dangerous inflammation. I avoid buying products that say this whenever possible.
- Any kind of added color – I like my food colored by nature, not by Yellow #5 or Red #40. These artificial colors have been linked to attention disorders in children, which is ironic as their primary use is to make foods more appealing to kids. The EU, which is ahead of America in food safety by leaps and bounds, requires any foods containing artificial colors to display a warning that states “may have an adverse effect on activity and attention in children.” We’d likely be smart to heed that warning, too.
Nutrition labels are the greatest tool we have to protect ourselves from harmful ingredients. It’s in your best interest to at least give the nutrition label a glance before making a purchase. You might be surprised at what you find by comparing two seemingly similar items side by side.
Are you a nutrition label reader? Have you found any crazy ingredients in the foods you typically eat by reading the labels? Tell me about it in the comments.