Food Labels: Decoded

By Tia Norris, March 2019 Issue of Echo Magazine in Phoenix, AZ.

Let’s not mince words: reading food labels is freaking confusing.

There are three parts to this process that we care about: the front of the package, including any “claims” by the manufacturer; the nutrition facts panel on the back; and the list of ingredients underneath that.

Before we proceed, you need to have a clear idea of what your goal is before you make any judgments on food labels. For example: if you’re on the paleo diet, saturated fat is fine; if you’re leaning out, high carbs won’t help you; if you’re a triathlete, sodium is a good thing. What I’m saying is, “good” or “bad” judgments are entirely dependent on your goals. What helps one, hurts another.

  1. Front:

The most important things you need to know about most of the “claims” on the front packaging of foods: they are largely unregulated, and almost always misleading. Remember, big food doesn’t really care about you and your long-term health; all they care about is dolla’ bills and making more of them by cajoling you into believing their bullshit.

“All natural”, “made with real fruit”, “whole grains”, “zero sugar”, and more … I could write seven articles’ worth on each of these claims that are often duplicitous.

For now, my best advice is this: Do not trust the majority of “claims” on the front of packaged foods; keep in mind the not-so-secret agenda of pure greed from the manufacturers.

  1. Nutrition Facts:

The good news is that there’s not a lot of ways to cheat on the nutrition facts panel. This means what you see is usually exactly what you get, save for those companies that actually report false numbers on the panel. (It does happen; don’t be surprised.)

The bad news is that most people don’t have a diet or fitness goal, on top of the fact that they lack basic understanding of what each nutrient really does. Fat is not bad. Carbs are not bad. Sodium is not bad. A trainer or nutritionist can help you understand your goals.

That being said, let’s break down the key parts of the panel:

Serving size: is key! Often times, the relevant serving size is much smaller than what people expect — the whole package might have several smaller servings within it! Be very mindful of this number.

Fat: includes saturated, unsaturated, and trans fats. The public favor regarding fats has changed drastically over the years. The only hard rule here is to avoid trans fats and consult your expert panel otherwise.

Cholesterol: is only bad if you have a pre-existing cholesterol problem. In the face of an otherwise healthy diet, don’t get too hung up on this number.

Sodium: isn’t always bad. The more you sweat, the more sodium you need to replace. The less you move and sweat, the more you should mind this number.

Carbohydrates: these are made up of sugar, starches, and fiber. “Net carbs” = total carbs, minus fiber. Again, consult your diet expert to discuss how much you need.

Vitamins: are, of course, essential, but ideal DV’s (daily values) are arguably difficult to reach solely through packaged foods alone. Also: %DV is largely irrelevant due to wide variety of goals and programs. I wouldn’t even look at this number.

Protein: NOT required to be on the panel! This is arguably the most important macronutrient in the majority of my clients’ diets!

“Quantities” are good and relevant. But you have to keep looking to find the “quality” of your ingredients below.

  1. Ingredients: 

Ingredients are listed biggest to smallest — the first one listed is the most prevalent in the product. Here is my list of absolute “no’s” that should make you put the package down and back away.

Sugar alcohols: anything that ends in “-ol”, like xylitol, maltitol, sorbitol, erythritol, etc. These are everywhere! I know that some bodybuilders and keto dieters will fight me on this, but these are synthetic shitstorms. At the very least, they cause gastrointestinal distress; at the worst, they are endocrine disruptors which mean they slowly, insidiously, work to short circuit your system of hormones.

Aspartame: many studies have linked aspartame to major health problems. This is your sweetener in many “zero sugar” drinks and foods. You might be able to get away with it in small quantities, but it does add it up and it’s unequivocally damaging in large quantities.

High fructose corn syrup: is this still seriously a debate? Once again, a reminder to not believe big food. HFCS is a synthetic corn derivative that, on a cellular level, causes major gastrointestinal distress to, at best, partially absorb. Garbage.

Sucralose: this chlorine-injected sucrose-like ultra-sweetener is the most popular one on the market these days. You’ll find studies that support usage, and ones that demonize it. Personally? I’d rather go with natural, easily absorbed plain sugar instead. Sucralose has been proven to disrupt natural insulin and digestive processes, which have far-reaching negative effects on your endocrine system as a whole.

It’s complex, I know. Remember, don’t believe the “claims” on your packages, as they’re usually just clever marketing scams. Pay attention to both your quantities and qualities, all in accordance with your trainer’s or dietician’s recommendations. Question everything!

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