Deciphering Food Labels - What's Really Good For You Part 2
Part 2 of our adventure into the world of food labels should provide you with the remainder of information you need to go down the aisles of any grocery store and feel confident that you really know what you're buying and more importantly what you're eating.
All-Natural / Natural / 100% Natural
In regards to beef and poultry, "Natural" means a product containing no artificial ingredient or added color and is only minimally processed. Minimal processing means that the product was processed in a manner that does not fundamentally alter the product. I'm a little nervous about the word "fundamentally". I would feel much better if they used the words "does not actually" alter the product.
In regards to most other processed foods labeled "Natural" and "All-Natural",
the USDA definition is that they do not contain artificial ingredients or preservatives and the ingredients are only minimally processed. However, they may contain antibiotics, growth hormones, and other similar chemicals. None of which sound very natural to me.
It's a clever marketing technique and when we see products with a "Natural" food label, we often assume that the product is healthy (especially when it has that nice woodsy looking packaging).
Always read the ingredients and if any of them sound unnatural or have more than 3 syllables, don't buy it.
This looked hopeful at first glance because the FDA's definition for "Fresh" food labeling is defined as "raw food that's never been frozen or warmed or been subject to any other preserving process". That's simple and made sense which made me a little suspicious.I looked further into this and discovered that there was an additional FDA provision that sort of took the freshness out of "Fresh". That provision (and I loved the wording) is: "The following do not preclude the food from using the term fresh:"
(i) The addition of approved waxes or coatings;
(ii) The post-harvest use of approved pesticides;
(iii) The application of a mild chlorine wash or mild acid wash on produce; or
(iv) The treatment of raw foods with ionizing radiation not to exceed the maximum dose of 1 kilo Gray in accordance with 179.26 of this chapter.
So, pesticides, chlorine, acid wash, wax or coatings and ionizing radiation are okay. This would not fit my definition of "fresh".
No Added Sugar
Beware of this label. It means the manufacturers haven't put any additional sugar into their product, but it may still have artificial sweeteners.Artificial sweeteners are not produced by nature like honey, maple syrup, or sugar cane; they are produced synthetically and have been linked to several health issues. Sorbitol, which is a common artificial sweetener can cause serious stomach distress for many people and they may not be aware that this is the culprit.Once again, read the labels carefully.
Gluten is a protein found in grains like wheat and rye and it can wreak havoc on the health of those with celiac disease or gluten intolerance. If you have gluten intolerance be sure to check labels on foods that you wouldn't think would have gluten such as deli meats, soy sauce, salad dressing, and some ice creams.
This is another great marketing opportunity for food manufacturers to deceive us.To make products look low in fat or calories, they may list this information based on a very small serving.Don't be fooled – that bag of potato chips I bought (that started this conversation) indicated only 140 calories per serving, which was 14 very small chips. I could eat that many chips before I even got the bag completely open. Do the math before you buy.
Not all calories are created equal so counting calories is not necessarily the healthiest approach to meal planning.
For example, ½ avocado has about 120 calories as well as the following nutritional value:
- Saturated Fat 1g
- Trans Fat 0g
- Monounsaturated Fat 5g
- Cholesterol 0%
- Total Carbohydrates 1%
- Dietary Fiber 11%
- Total Sugar 0%
- Protein 1g
- Iron 0.3mg2%
- Potassium 250mg6%
- Thiamin 0.04mg4%
- Riboflavin 0.1mg8%
- Niacin 1mg6%
- Vitamin B6 0.1mg6%
- Folate 45mcg DFE (0mcg folic acid)10%
- Pantothenic Acid 0.7mg15%
- Phosphorus 30mg2%
- Magnesium 15mg4%
- Zinc 0.3mg2%
- Copper 0.1mg10%
- Manganese 0.1mg4%
- Vitamin C 4mg4%
- Vitamin E 1mg6%
- Vitamin K 11mcg10%
- Thiamin 0.04mg4%
- Riboflavin 0.1mg8%
- Niacin 1mg6%
Few foods can provide this number of vitamins, minerals, fiber and healthy fats (not all fats are created equal either) in one serving.
Monounsaturated Fats are good for you as opposed to Trans Fats and Polyunsaturated Fats you find in most processed foods. Research has shown that these healthy fats can help reduce cholesterol levels, lower the risk for heart disease and stroke and aid in weight loss.
Now let's compare a 1cup serving of french fries which has about 156 calories. Close enough in calories…but falls short of the nutritional values found in an avocado. Less vitamins and minerals, high percentage of salt and carbohydrates, low amount of fiber:
- Saturated Fat 1.869g
- Polyunsaturated Fat 1.304g
- Monounsaturated Fat 4.664g
- Sodium 171 grams 7%
- Potassium 300mg
- Total Carbohydrates 20.33 (Yikes)
- Dietary Fiber 1.9g
- Protein 1.98g
- Sugars 0.33g
- Calcium 1%
- Iron 4%
- Vitamin C 5%
The more nutritional value a food has, the more able your body is to use it instead of storing it as empty calories.Fast food and convenience food has contributed to many people being overfed and under nourished.It is especially important that children do not fall into this group.The rapid growth and development in children requires that their diets include all the essential nutrients, fats, vitamins, minerals and proteins on a regular basis.Calorie counting is not beneficial to children but limiting sugars and empty calorie foods is one of the best eating habits you can adopt.
It can be a little challenging to eat healthy these days and healthy food choices depend a lot on individual preferences and what makes you feel good. Understanding food labels can be of value in making those choices.Once you become aware of what you're really eating, you can start identifying what you would rather be eating.Here are a few food tips that promote healthier eating habits for everyone and don't require a degree in organic chemistry to understand:
1. Eat fresh fruits and vegetables daily and buy local and organic if available.
2. Prepare your own meals as much as possible – you control the ingredients.
3. Be conscious of serving sizes.
4. Read the ingredients on packaged and prepared foods.
5. Make meals fun - create healthier versions of your favorite dishes and cook together.
6. Stay away from artificial sweeteners.
7. Limit your consumption of empty calories.
8. Always eat breakfast and include protein - this is especially important for children. You will feel more energetic all day!
This may sound complicated but it's not. Most of us buy a lot of the same foods every week. Once you get in the habit of checking labels, figuring out what brands are the best and where to get the freshest foods, you don't have to think about it anymore.You will begin to identify stores that carry your food choices, know what you want to buy and shopping becomes easier.