Analysis paralysis happens to the best of us. Especially in the grocery store.

Because for the first time in history the modern person can walk down aisle after aisle of instantly accessible food.

But with the shelves overflowing with colors, banners, fad terms, and hype, how do we narrow in on the best fuel for your body and mind?

To identify the true nutritional value you’re bringing home…  turn things around—literally.

Label Food—Not People

In the long run, I believe that honesty is definitely the best policy. One can get away by being dishonest for a short term, but ultimately, honesty is what pays. – Kapil Dev

The road to accurate and helpful food labeling has been slow, ever since the Industrial Revolution made mass production of goods possible.

Recognizable change to the food industry came in 1990 with the passing of the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act (NLEA) requiring all packaged foods to bear nutrition labeling and all health claims for foods to be consistent with terms defined by the Secretary of HHS.

It didn’t stop the production of unhealthy foods—and that’s okay.

Because it did give the consumers the information to make their own choices.

So now that the power is in your hands… here’s how to wield it!

I put together a simple, systematic way to glance at a label and know whether you should put it in your shopping cart, or toss it back on the shelf.

Start at the top and work your way down.

Serving Size Does Matter

Look at the serving size to relate how much actual food is being ‘labeled’ below.  

The next line tells me how many Servings per Container are in the box or can. (This will be important if you take it home and polish off the whole thing during one episode of your favorite TV show. )

Next, look at Calories per Serving. This tells us that two crackers (the serving size) have 60 calories. So if I eat 4 crackers, I just quickly consumed 120 calories, and so on.  

A simple rule of thumb: If one serving has 60 or more calories, I toss it. If it has fewer, let’s move down the label:

Read the Fine Print

The % daily values I would ignore because unless you are on exactly a 2000 calorie a day diet, it’s too confusing.

  1. How much fat does it have per serving?

I know the total calories per serving are fewer than 60 by now or I would have thrown it out, but where are those calories coming from?

If the fat value is high, greater than 5 g per serving, it gets tossed.

If there are a lot of trans fats—nope!

Cholesterol, ignore it.

  1. What is the sodium content?

If this is greater than 200 mg per serving, I toss it as well.

We don’t need a lot of salt confounding our lifelong quest for health and weight control.

  1. How much sugar is there?  

If the sugar content exceeds 7 grams per serving, save it for Def Leppard. 😉

It too is likely calorically dense and better to avoid.

  1.  What is the protein content? I am probably not going to get a lot of quality protein in something I find in a box, but some items, dairy, for example, are excellent sources of protein.  Give it a gander to make sure.
  2. What is actually in the ingredients?    

It’s a well known “secret” that companies list ingredients from heaviest to lightest.

So if your first item listed is High Fructose Corn Syrup, you can trust that what you are holding is nothing more than High Fructose Corn Syrup with a few other things there for color and/or texture. Yuck!

Buzzwords Explained: Your Nutrient Cheat Sheet

Alright, that’s the generally straightforward stuff. Now let’s get down to marketing.

Food companies know that you’re on the lookout for healthy options.

And when a food source claims something to do with calories, fat, or any other thing of importance (especially while following the Z Diet), it must meet the FDA and RDA’s standards for truth in labeling.

But even so, companies will lean on flashy words and phrases to sell you their product… but watch out! These don’t always mean what you think they mean.

When you spot the hype words, keep this info in mind:

Calories

  • “Low calorie” means fewer than 40 calories per serving
  • “Reduced calorie” means 25% lower in calories than the regular product. Be careful with this one. If the original product was a 500 calorie phenomenon, you’re saving a whopping 125 calories, but still getting 375!
  • “Calorie-free” means fewer than 5 calories per serving. You could still manage 75 servings and get yourself in trouble…

Fat

  • “Low fat” means less than 3 grams of fat per serving
  • “Fat-free” means less than .5 grams of fat per serving
  • “Low Saturated Fat” means less than 1 gram of  saturated fat per serving AND less than .5 grams of trans fat per serving

Lean

  • “Lean meat and poultry” means less than 10 g fat per serving, and less than 4.5 grams saturated and trans fat per serving, and less than 95 mg cholesterol per serving
  • “Extra Lean meat and poultry” means less than 5 g fat per serving, and less than 2  grams saturated and trans fat per serving, and less than 95 mg cholesterol per serving

Light

  • Means it must have 1/3 fewer calories than the original product. The same rule mentioned above applies: how many calories does the original product have?
  • Light can mean it has one-half the fat of the original OR it can mean the product, compared to the original, simply is lighter in texture or color. Uh oh.
  • Light can also simply indicate that, compared to the original product, the amount of Sodium (Na+) is decreased by 50%

“Superfood”

It probably won’t hurt you, but this term has little scientific backing and is mainly a marketing term.

“Natural”

This term isn’t regulated by the FDA and is basically meaningless for your health. Heck, Arsenic is “natural,” but you still won’t catch me serving it with veggies.

“Free-range”

If this term brings to mind happy, fluffy chickens pecking in an open field, you may want to think again. The FDA doesn’t require any specific size, quality, or amount of time in the outdoor space—just an “access.”

“Healthy”

This simply means it is low in fat (trans, saturated, cholesterol) and low in sodium with at least 10% daily values for vitamins A, C, Iron, Calcium, protein, and fiber.

“Sugar-free”

It means less than .5 grams of refined sugar per serving.

But there well could be other sweeteners involved like agave, rice sugar, or sugar alcohols that can carry even more calories than your regular sweets.

“Made with real fruit”

Products sporting this label may have real fruit inside, but in a much smaller amount than actual fruit.

“Good source of”

Means providing at least 10% of the daily value of a particular vitamin or nutrient per serving.

“High in”

Provides at least 20% of the daily value of a specific nutrient/serving.

Reading Just Got Healthier

“Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening my axe.” —Abraham Lincoln

Taking a few moments reading food labels may have you spend a little more time on the front end of cooking, but it pays dividends in your quality of life!

Now that you’ve got the inside scoop, keep your eyes peeled for these label loopholes—and remember to check the numbers for how they really add up.

It’s certainly worth your time to do so.

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