Learn the facts and how to read them best according to your own needs.
The topic of food labels has always been a controversial one among nutrition-conscious individuals. There are people who spend hours in the supermarket aisles reading all the info they can find on a package before they put it in their shopping cart. On the opposite side stand those who believe that we shouldn’t eat anything that needs a label. Nature’s products come without labels and a clean way of eating means no packaged foods. But the reality for most people who care about the quality of their nutrition lies somewhere in between.
It’s absolutely true that the less packaged foods we eat, the better for our health. But let’s be realistic, we can’t completely avoid them, can we? We need to buy milk and flour for example. And you may think that they are not exactly considered processed foods but the truth is that they also contain additives most of the times. And this is actually our main reason for trying to avoid packaged foods. But can you see this info on a nutrition label? And how important are the facts that a label can give you?
A few weeks ago, the US Food and Drug Administration announced big changes on the nutrition labeling of packaged foods. After 20 years, the food label gets a makeover based on new scientific information and the changes that have occurred to the eating habits of the average American family during the past two decades. Chances are that more countries will follow their example. But how important are these changes? Can they make a consumer’s life easier? Let’s look into them.
– Highlighted calories and servings. Bigger and bolder fonts, easier to spot.
– Realistic serving sizes. Not according to how much people should eat but to what they actually do eat.
– No more “calories from fat” indication. Scientists already know that there are good fats and bad fats and that’s where consumers should focus on.
– Changes in required nutrients. Vitamin D and Potassium become mandatory whereas Vitamins A and C will not always be present since such deficiencies are not very common.
– The addition of “Added sugars”. Consumers will start realizing the difference between products with natural sugars present and the ones that have been “enhanced” with considerable amounts of added sugars.
In short, the changes are made in an attempt to shift the focus of the consumer to those characteristics that are probably most important for their health. Caloric value, sugars and not fat, natural sugars vs added ones and the possible deficiency in certain vitamins and minerals. All these things are important but are they the only things that matter when it comes to our food?
What about additives and chemicals?
Or GMOs (Genetically Modified Organisms)?
Scientists would answer that these are safe substances for our health and there are guidelines and laws that can ensure there is no risk for the consumers’ health. But those of us who are trying to eat clean and avoid processed foods would have a different opinion.
We would prefer to know the amount of chemicals that have been added to our foods. And GMOs may be self-proclaimed by companies as safe but the truth is that there is no research on long-term effects on humans’ health that can prove it. And, whatever the case, we have a right to know whether the building blocks of the food we eat have been tampered with in a genetic engineering laboratory.
In order to get to know our food and make healthy choices, the nutrition label is probably not enough. Thankfully, there’s also the ingredient list. It can’t clarify everything but it can give us a clue as to what our food is actually made of. Long ingredient lists with unknown names and multiple E’s usually mean… chemical storm. We’d better avoid them or limit their consumption. In countries where GMOs are allowed, the indication is usually mandatory. How and where? Well, that’s another controversial topic…
Do you need to read all of this information on every food package? Of course not. Before you train yourself on how to make the best use of this info, you have to ask yourself what’s most important to you. Every consumer has different needs. For example, knowing the amount of added sugars in a food versus natural sugars may be important for every healthy adult but for a parent who cares for a diabetic child, all sugars are created equal. For a person with high blood pressure the amount of sodium is much more important than sugars. And a person with high cholesterol needs to look at this number before anything else.
Summing up, here is all the information that may be of interest to you:
In the nutrition label:
- Energy in calories – Important for everyone but mostly for people who are trying to manage their weight. Also, a good indicator of how much we can eat.
- Amount of fat – Really important as an increased intake of fat is connected with heart disease and certain chronic illnesses. But make sure you educate yourself on the different kinds of fat.
- Amount of sugar – Also important for all of us but especially for people with diabetes.
- Amount of sodium – Simply the amount of salt. We are all advised to limit it but it’s really important for people with high blood pressure.
- Amount of carbohydrates and fiber – Important for athletes, people who are trying to manage their weight and also for everyone who cares about their gut health. Foods rich in fiber can help.
- Amount of protein – Important for people who are trying to gain muscle, for athletes and also for vegans and vegetarians who look for alternate sources of protein.
- Amount of vitamins and minerals – People with certain deficiencies may be interested in these numbers – like iron deficiency – or people with certain needs – like smokers who need extra Vitamin C.
- Serving size – Especially important for people who are trying to practice portion control and weight management.
In the ingredient list (or other informative labels on the package):
- Quantity of ingredients – Even if it is not stated, usually the ingredients are listed in order of weight. So the first 4 to 5 ingredients are the main ones.
- Presence of allergens – One of the most important pieces of information on a package. Extremely important for all people with food allergies.
- Presence of gluten or lactose – Important for people with these particular intolerances.
- (Possibly) Presence of GMOs – Depending on the laws and the guidelines of each country. Really important for anyone who is interested in the origins of their food.
Choose and decide which of these facts are worth the time you’ll spend on reading food packages. This way you can be a smart consumer and make the best use of the information provided.
Do you read food labels? Which information sounds more important to you? What do you think of the changes on the US food labels?
Please, share your thoughts in the comments below.