In this post I’ll be going over the basics of the important things to look for when reading food labels, and then walk you though a real life grocery store comparison of two brand name products where we decide after reading the labels which is the better product to buy. There is also a downloadable anti-inflammatory food guide at the bottom of the post, so don’t miss it!
Do you even read food labels?
Recently, I sat down to chat with my mom about the many sneaky names for sugar in packaged food. We checked out some of the items in her pantry to find loads of “bad” stuff. She admitted not really taking much time to read food labels while at the store, and she’s not alone. Generally, consumers are becoming more aware of what’s actually in the food they are buying, but food labels can be confusing – if they’re even read at all.
Convenience, marketing, and habit all play a part in whether or not we read food labels. That said, it’s a good practice if we want to focus on living a long, healthy life. It takes some time at first, but once you make it a habit, it’s really a small thing that can have big benefits.
We are enticed with the eye-catching, colorful information on the front-facing food labels, but it’s the less appealing stuff on the back that’s ultimately the most important. Studies have shown that we usually do just as the marketers want, though, and mostly focus on the front – and that is a recipe for poor health, obesity, and disease.
What should we be looking for?
If you do turn your food packaging around to read the label on the back, you’re probably like most people and the first place your eyes gravitate to is the calorie count. While this is not a bad thing to generally keep track of (I’m not a huge fan of calorie counting), there are other important factors to consider.
The serving size sets the stage for the rest of the list. It tells you how much or how little (arbitrarily at times) is suggested for one serving. For example, at first glance you might find that there are 17 grams of sugar in a can of Arizona Green Tea. However, what you might completely miss is that there are 2.5 servings in that can. Factoring that in, now you’re talking about a whopping 42.5 grams of sugar!
Number of servings
Sometimes serving sizes are stated in ounces, making it tricky to figure out. To get around that, you can look at the number of servings to at least get a feel for how to portion out a full box or package of whatever you are eating. Boy was my son surprised to learn that a serving size for Oreos was not, in fact, a WHOLE ROW. Nabisco actually states that there are only 160 calories per serving in their 18 oz. serving size of Oreos. What you’ll miss if you don’t read the food label? There are only THREE cookies per serving. Want more cookies? Get ready to do some multiplication.
Macronutrients, (protein, carbohydrates, and fat) are the three basic components that make up the nutrients in our daily diet. We need all three (so don’t try to totally eliminate one or more of them, based solely on what you hear in the media – with the exception of trans fat, which you should avoid at all costs).
By the way, I wrote an epic blog post about carbs and healthy fats that you should totally read (bookmark this link)!
Depending on your body, how active you are, and your individual health goals, your ideal macronutrient proportions will vary. This is also known as your “macronutrient ratio”. Sometimes you’ll just hear people referring to their “macros”.
There are some amazing programs that can help you determine your optimal ratio of macros, based on what your body responds to best. I’ve been through the 131 Method, and I highly recommend it (you can learn more about the 131 at this affiliate link).
The ingredient list is one place on the food label you should not skip (even though it’s mostly hidden way on the bottom)! Generally, the shorter the list, the better, because that means that food is probably less processed. Be on the lookout for hidden added sugar, and try to avoid long lists of things you can’t pronounce (most of those are chemicals). Also, the items higher up on the list are found in greater quantities, so if a food does have some added sugar, hopefully it’s not up near the top.
A good rule of thumb is to look at the first five ingredients to give you an idea of what that product is mostly made of.
So to recap, when reading food labels (on the back of your foods), look for:
- Serving size – know how much is “one”
- Number of servings – helps us to know when to say when
- Macronutrients – protein, carbs, and fat are our friends, except for trans fat, that is
- Ingredients – shorter list, pronounceable foods, good things closer to the top
A real life lesson in reading food labels
Now let’s take some of what we know about reading food labels and put it into practice, with a look at the food labels of two popular brands of pre-packaged guacamole.
For this example, I’m ignoring any marketing messages on the front of the packages. Instead, we’ll look solely at the food labels on the back.
As a part of my grocery store comparison, I wanted to find the answer to this question:
Is there a healthy guacamole option out there (that I don’t have to make myself)?
Comparison shopping is worth it!
If you’re like me, the very first thing you compare is price. That said, if you’re a woman over 50 (or any age, really), my personal opinion is that filling your body with better ingredients, even if it the cost is a little higher, is more important than saving a few cents per serving.
Flashback to the days in college where we ate cheap ramen and canned spaghetti on the regular… (or was that just me)?
Anyway, as a single mom, I can tell you that I am VERY cost conscious, but I also want VALUE for my dollars. Most of the time, I can tweak my budget to allow for a higher priced, nutritionally sound item. It just takes being intentional to sacrifice somewhere else in the budget. Like waiting a little longer to buy a new pair of shoes…
So let’s dive in to two of the guacamole options from my supermarket.
First up: Dean’s Guacamole
Like I mentioned, one common overlooked area of reading food labels is the serving size, so let’s start there. The serving size for Dean’s Guacamole says 2 tablespoons.
If we’re eating the guacamole with tortilla chips, I’m not sure 2 tablespoons will be enough, but OK, let’s just go with that (just know we will probably need to multiply our serving size after the first five chips!).
In our 2 Tbsp serving size, we will be getting the following:
- 90 calories
- 9 grams of fat (2.5 of them saturated)
- 180 grams of sodium
At first glance, that doesn’t look all that bad, but looking at the ingredient list, I was shocked! There are over 45 “foods” listed. Remember our rule of thumb: we want a shorter list, and we should look the most carefully at the first five.
I was most surprised at how far down the list actual avocados are. Yes, they’re in there, but not until ingredient #8. I also noticed it said “avocado pulp” and I wondered if that was something different than regular avocados.
The rest of the list is a strange mix of chemicals and preservatives.
- Skim milk
- Soybean oil
- Hydrogenated vegetable oil (trans fat)
- Avocado pulp
- Lactic acid
- Sodium Caseinate (added dairy)
- Mono and Diglycerides (to extend shelf life)
- Xanthan gum (to increase viscosity of a liquid)
- Cellulose gel (keeps whipped foods fluffy)
- Disodium phosphate (an emulsifier)
- Dextrose (sugar)
- Artificial colors (FD&CBlue No. 1, Red No. 40, Yellow No. 5 and Yellow No. 6)
And now for the item behind door number two…
Next Up: Wholly Guacamole
- 60 calories
- 5 grams of fat (1 unsaturated)
- 105 grams of sodium.
Nice! But that’s not the best part.
The best part is that this brand has only 7 ingredients, and they are all easily recognizable, AND avocados (real ones) are the FIRST on the list!
Check out the (short) list of ingredients. Hey, they are all real food!
- Haas avocados
- Jalapeño puree (white vinegar, jalapeno peppers, salt)
- Dehydrated onion
- Dehydrated red bell pepper
- Jalapeno powder
- Granulated garlic
So now let me ask you, which guacamole would YOU rather eat?
If you said the Wholly Guacamole, I would definitely say you’re one smart cookie (or should I say tortilla chip)!
How easy of a swap would this be, to give yourself (and your party guests) a better, healthier alternative?
You might be wondering why I didn’t include actual prices in this post. One reason is that every grocery store is different, but also because your purchase will need to be based on your best judgment of what you are willing to pay for and what value it has for you and your family. After all, I could literally stretch my food dollars a lot further if my I went to the $.99 menu at the drive through everyday, but one way or another, I would end up paying for whatever choices I make.
Now of course, the guacamole brand comparison is just an example of how you can make a simple swap based on intentionally reading food labels. Now imagine doing the same thing for just a few more items in your grocery cart each week. Over time, your overall diet will slowly change for the better. Chances are you won’t even feel it!
Or – why not DIY?
Of course, if you REALLY want to know what’s in that green stuff you’re putting on your chips, go buy some avocados, limes, tomatoes, onion, mustard, and cilantro. Then Google a healthy recipe, and I’m sure you can make it yourself! Then you’ll know exactly what’s in it!
So the next time you’re walking down the aisles at your grocery store, rather than just buying the same products you’ve always purchased out of habit, or just because of price alone, I do hope you’ll check out those food labels carefully. You just might be able to make a small change that will do your body good. Making healthy food choices takes practice, and it’s is not an exact science, but with some of the tips here I hope you are more armed and ready for your next grocery haul!
In this thing with you,
P.S. If you need help incorporating healthy eating, with a source of clean, dense nutrition made super easy, one of the staples in my family is Shakeology. Every member of my family drinks it and I consider it my family’s “fast food”. We don’t have to worry about any sneaky stuff on the food labels, either, because it’s made with whole food, not chemical additives. Plus, it’s packed with all the Superfoods you need for a healthy, active lifestyle. Check it out here.
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Dear friend, I pray that you may enjoy good health and that all may go well with you, even as your soul is getting along well. ~ 3 John 1:2