As a former teacher, one of the sayings I love is “when all else fails, read the directions!” It was true for most students and it is true for most of us still today: we don’t read instructions, nor do we read food labels either. The government is trying to keep us informed by insisting those nutrition labels are there, and it even mandates what the manufacturer can put on that nutrition facts label, but the labels don’t do any good if we don’t read them. When you ask most people, they don’t read the labels for a variety of reasons: 1) ‘I already know what it says’; 2) ‘It’s all lies anyway’; and 3) ‘I can’t make sense of all that gibberish!’
Ideally, I should say I am a dedicated reader of labels, but most of the time, unless it’s something new, I don’t really check the labels either. (My bad!) Even then, most of the time, I do what I am sure most of us do: I check the calorie count! I will also check the protein, fat and carbs, but I’m normally checking for calories and serving size.
There is a very real and important difference between packaging and the nutritional facts label on a product. When it comes to packaging, the government is much more lax than when it comes to the nutritional facts. For example, a lot of consumers will purchase a loaf of bread that has the words “all natural” on the packaging, but there is no legal definition of “natural.” The cellulose mixed with shredded cheese to keep it from clumping up comes from wood pulp (as in trees!) and it can be labeled as “all natural.” However if your avocado has a sticker on that says “Certified Organic,” that means it has to have been grown according to certain requirements. Manufacturers know that when it comes to packaging, it’s what more of us pay attention to and read over that little box of information on the back. So they put a lot of their own attention into putting the right words and phrases on the front of the package!
One of my friends gave me a good example of packaging vs. the label a few weeks ago. She was at Trader Joe’s and saw of bag of black licorice with the words “Gluten Free!” on the front. The Gluten Free hype is one of her ‘hot buttons,’ so when she scoffed “licorice has always been gluten free,” she was surprised when I told her that licorice is made with wheat flour. I’ve read the nutritional label on licorice for the ingredients, among other things, so licorice hasn’t always been gluten free. While I am sure she perused the label for the calories and probably even the serving size, unless you read the ingredients, you don’t know what is in it. This is why so many people stop at those first two items; the ingredients list is a whole new headache!
Those first two items (the serving size and the calorie count) are enough of a headache! How many of us have bought a candy bar, checked the calories “eh, 220 is okay,” eaten the whole thing, only to realize that the manufacturer counted that entire candy bar as two servings? I found out that way about my favorite Pay Day bars. Yikes! It’s on that nutritional facts label, so no one can say the manufacturer didn’t warn me. It’s my fault for not reading that label! This is why there was such a strong movement to put the entire calorie count on the front of the package: most of us aren’t going to drink half a 12 oz. can of soda or bottle of lemonade, so by putting the whole amount of calories on the front of the bottle or can, we knew right from the start how many calories we’d be getting!
There is no denying that calories count (it says so on the front of vending machines now) but there is a lot more information in those little labels than just servings and calories. The ingredient list is also a little important and the manufacturers like to play fast and loose with that too! One of the commercials I’ve been seeing lately is for Kind bars. In the commercial, they compare a Kind bar made with almonds to a Clif bar made with brown rice syrup. [Kind vs Clif] As the commercial points out, brown rice syrup is another name for sugar. There is a reason labels manufacturers use ingredients such as brown rice syrup, agave syrup, maltose, dextrose, sucrose, or even just plain honey: either they sound really “natural” or “healthy” or we don’t know what they are. They are all forms of sugar. (Hint: pretty much anything ending in -ose on a label is a sugar.) The manufacturers of foods like Clif bars and Kind bars know that many of their consumers are looking for something healthy or all natural, which is why choosing a product that doesn’t say “sugar” is more attractive. Or perhaps more deceptive. If you want to cut back on your sugar intake, you may not realize that the agave syrup, molasses, cane syrup or honey are all metabolized the same as table sugar (sucrose).
Of course, no one is going to quiz you on the ingredients in your kombucha, BBQ sauce or pancake mix. What you choose to eat is all up to you, but if you are trying to lose weight or just eat healthier, it’s worth it to spend a little time looking at those food labels. A big way to cut down on your label-reading is to make it simple: buying mostly whole foods makes it pretty simple! When I buy a bag of broccoli, the ingredients list simply says: “Broccoli.” Buying bagged salad is similar: “Green cabbage, carrots, butter lettuce, baby spinach.” Even if you get a salad kit, you can choose to use or not use the croutons or salad dressing included. Half the time, I use my own salad dressing.
This is one of the places where I do read the ingredients, serving size and calories! I am trying to avoid “crop oils.” These are things like canola oil, safflower oil or other vegetable oils other than olive or avocado. Those oils tend to be higher in Omega-6 fatty acids which are pro-inflammatory. Since arthritis (an inflammatory disease) is one of my issues, I try to get more Omega-3 fatty acids in my diet, such as fish, olives and avocados. By sticking with mostly whole foods, I avoid a lot of them, but if I am buying something new, I read the label for those crop oils.
If you are one of those people who is sensitive to gluten, lactose or anything else, reading the ingredients list should be part of your regular practice. I am not sensitive to gluten, but I was surprised to find that one of my favorite foods (surimi aka ‘fake crab’) isn’t gluten free because a lot of it is made of fish paste (usually pollock) and wheat starch as a binder. That was a big shock to me, since I also try to avoid starch. Here’s one place where I should have been reading the labels!
You don’t need to examine every ingredient on the label, nor do you have to memorize how many calories per serving or how many servings per package, but taking a little time to review what you are eating isn’t a bad thing. It can also help you make better food choices, especially if you are trying to lower your blood glucose, sodium intake or watch those calories. I think it is also important to remember that just because a product says “all natural” or “natural flavors” does not mean it is organic, pesticide or herbicide free or isn’t genetically modified. If these are the kinds of things that matter to you, then spend a few moments to look at the label. You might be surprised to find how much you don’t know about your favorite candy bar!