Learning how to read food labels properly and equipping yourself with the skills needed to navigate the mine field of toxic substances in our food products is more important today than it ever has been. Understanding what is on the labels of our food is the cornerstone to taking back your health by knowing exactly whats going into that magnificent machine of yours.
Today our supermarket shelves are lined with food like products very cleverly marketed to entice and as food activist Michael Pollan says, the number one rule when it comes to food is to “Eat food and avoid edible food like substances.” Easy enough right? Well it can be when you know what to watch out for.
You guys know that Corey and I run a health food business called Food Actually (get it? food…actually?) so we know the ins and outs from both the manufacturer’s point of view and the consumer’s. We have studied the labeling laws (for Australia) to make sure that our products adhere to the rules.
The one thing that is very important to us at Food Actually is understanding that people are busy and as much as I love to inspire people to cook their own healthy food I know that most of us are really time poor and we depend on convenient food products to help us out just that little bit, so we always set out to create products that are convenient but are also still as close to wholefoods as possible. We don’t add any chemicals or preservatives and we use only the best, mostly organic ingredients. Nothing beats nature when it comes to the best food for us but if you know what to steer clear of, you can still eat well and use food products.
When I was in my teens I studied the nutrition panels of foods. I was obsessed with knowing how much fat the foods I ate had in them. Fat free was the go right? Grocery shopping took forever! Like a lot of us, when we’re younger, I took my body so for granted and cared way more about how it looked over how it felt to be truly vibrant. These days I’m not so much concerned with the nutritional values (although it is important to know what the values mean on the panel and we’ll get to that) I’m more concerned with whats actually in it – the ingredient list.If I scan a product and there are things in the ingredient list I can’t read, pronounce or recognize, it doesn’t go in my trolley. It’s that simple really.
There are 2 important things to look at on a food label ::
1. The ingredient list
2. The nutrition panel
These give you all the information you need to decide if it really is a healthy product or not.
Lets run through the label of Norridge
- Food labels will display storage instructions i.e store in a cool dry place or refrigerate after opening. Pretty self-explanatory and its important to adhere to these instructions as the manufacturers do extensive testing to develop these parameters to keeping the product at it’s best quality.
- There will always be a list of allergens like eggs, soy, gluten, nuts.
- Ingredients are listed in order according to the weight and quantity so the most dominant ingredient will feature first. This is very important to know so if sugar is the first ingredient on a list you probably want to steer clear of it.
- The longer the list, the more you want to err on the side of caution. Norridge has 9 ingredients but each ingredient is a whole food so again if you can’t recognize or pronounce the ingredients be wary of it.
- If the food label states an ingredient in the name it must be specified by the amount of it in the product. You can see for Norridge it is an Apple Cinnamon flavor so in the ingredient list you will see apple(18%) and cinnamon (<1%)
- Reading the nutrition panel::
- Energy is stated in kilojules, but most of us find using calories easier to track. You can get the energy value in calories by taking the kilojules and dividing by 4.2.
- We now understand that fat is actually essential to the body and not the bad guy we believed it to be, but the source of those fats is very important to consider. At first glance Norridge looks quite high in fat but referring back to the ingredient list you can see that those fats are from nuts which give us lovely omega 3 fatty acids and the coconut which is an excellent source of medium chain fatty acids. So fats from natural sources is ok but if a product is high in fat and there are hydrogenated vegetable oils in the ingredient list,margarine or any other processed oils you want to avoid those products.
- Carbohydrates are important to watch out for as well and what the source of those sugars are. Norridge has 8.9g of sugar but there is no added sugar in the product. Those sugars come from the dehydrated apple and currants so again a natural form of sugar. If you want to work out how many teaspoons of sugar a product has per serving take the sugar value per serving and divide by 5 as there are 5 grams of carbs per teaspoon of sugar so Norridge has 1.78g of natural sugar in it. You don’t need to add any sugar on top like many other breakfast cereals because the apple makes it sweet enough.
- A lot of packaged foods are really high in sodium and you really want to stay well below 2300mg of sodium per day.
If you would like to work out the nutrition information for your recipes you can do that here.
There are too many people counting calories and not enough people counting chemicals
Scary ingredients to watch out for ::
+ Foodmatters.com is an excellent source of info on food products and the toxic ingredients to watch out for so do check out their website for more information. Here is their list of
Additives to avoid:
1. Artificial sweeteners and sugar substitutes like aspartame, sucralose, saccharin, acesulfame. I can remember drinking diet coke and using sweeteners in my coffee thinking I was doing the right thing staying away from the dreaded carbs in sugar but all the while having this gnawing feeling in my gut that it wasn’t good for my body. Your body knows, by the way, a lot more than you do. We should listen to its infinite wisdom more often.
2.High Fructose Corn Syrup – seriously with all the amazing natural sugar substitutes we have like coconut sugar and rapadura sugar we really don’t need this processed sludge in our bodies. Unfortunately it’s in a whole lot of commercial products like colas and cookies.
3.MSG ( Mono-sodium-glutamate) is a flavor enhancer that we are finding out is way more sinister than once thought to be. It’s been linked to obesity, fatty liver, high insulin and blood sugar, high cholesterol, metabolic syndrome.. shall I go on? oh and its addictive – again it features in a lot of processed products under various names like hydrolyzed vegetable proteins, textured vegetable proteins, yeast extract ( hello beloved Vegemite, don’t say it’s so!- it is) The wonderful Dr John Douillard has a great article on MSG read it here.
4.Trans Fats – if you see “partially hydrogenated” you know its got trans fats.
5. Food Dyes – I don’t want food that’s been dyed how far from nature is that?
6. Sodium sulfite – found in wine (not all wine thank goodness!)
7. Sodium nitrate – it makes meats look brighter and redder and more enticing
8. BHA + BHT
9. Sulfur dioxide (E220)
10. Potassium Bromate
A little while back I did a post for Raw Chocolate Cherry Brownies and I compared the ingredient list of my brownies (8 wholefood ingredients) with that of a store-bought brownie ( I didn’t buy it, it came in a gift basket) and here is that list:
Sugar, Bleached wheat flour (enriched with Niacin, reduced iron, thiaminemononitrate, riboflavin and folic acid) soybean oil, semisweet chocolate chunks(chocolate liquor, sugar, dextrose, soy lecitin, vanilla extract) whole eggs, water, margarine, hydrogenated soybean oil, monoglycerides, sodium benzoate, cocoa(processed with alkali) natural and artificial flavoring, buttermilk powder, soy flour, wheat gluten, corn syrup solids, sodium alginate, salt, baking powder, corn starch, monocalcium phosphate, sodium bicarbonate
Ok so whats wrong with this list:
1. Remember how the ingredients are listed in order of weight well sugar is the first ingredient. Alarm bells should be going off already. The white processed stuff is bad for you plain and simple. Use natural sugar alternatives like maple syrup or rapadura sugar or just eat a piece of fruit if you need a sweet pick me up.
2.Bleached wheat flour – isn’t bleach what you use on your clothes or used to before you detoxed your cleaning cupboard?
3.Margarine – I haven’t touched the stuff since the 90’s its right up there with artificial sweeteners – man-made chemical sh#t storms
4.Hallelujah there is a whole food ingredient :: whole eggs
5. Processed soy
6. Plus the other 20 ingredients that are meant for a lab not a body
This is a real reflection of the ingredient list of a lot of products on our shelves.
It doesn’t have to scare the pants off you just gently guide yourself back to what you already know is good for you: real wholefoods.
Buzzwords to watch out for too:
1. Gluten free – I think its wonderful how many options are so widely available today for gluten free products and I love that Norridge is naturally gluten free because it means that those people who suffer so much at the hands of intolerance and diseases like coeliac now have so many choices. However not all gluten free products are actually good for you. You still have to read the ingredient list and determine for yourself if it is something you want to be eating. Quite often these products can be filled with all kinds of nasties that are needed to create the structural and textural integrity similar to that of a gluten product.
2. Natural – of course this makes you think its healthy but there is no regulation of this word and it can be very misleading.
3. Fortified or enriched – To me this says: ” Because we’ve processed this product to within an inch of its life it no longer contains the natural minerals and nutrients that nature once so lovingly provided it with so we’ve gone ahead and “fortified” it with synthetic minerals and vitamins” – that are acid forming in the body and more often than not – available in a form that the body can’t absorb anyway. Get your minerals and vitamins from wholefoods rather than relying on processed packed foods to deliver them.
We are so fortunate in Australia to have so many independent, artisan health food businesses, products and stores that are all about making good healthy food more available for people and armed with these tools you can now make educated decisions as to what you choose to put in your trolley and ultimately in your body.
Lets start a conversation :: I want to know from you in the comments below what you watch out for when reading the labels of food products.