4 tips for reading food labels

This post is for you if you want to make healthy choices when it comes to food shopping! Checking food labels and determining whether certain foods are good for us or not can be overwhelming considering the amount of ingredients in most food items, and it can take a lot of time that most of us don’t have to spare when going to the store. That’s why I came up with four main things to consider when determining whether or not to buy certain foods.

 

Ingredient order

The ingredients on the ingredient list have to be listed in order of how much of each ingredient is used; starting with the most used ingredient. For example, if an ingredient list would read sugar, vegetable fat, cocoa butter, skimmed milk powder, cocoa powder, you would know that sugar makes up the biggest part of the finished product, while cocoa powder makes up the smallest part.

Looking at ingredient lists this way can tell you a lot about the finished product. The ingredient list above is a simplified version of the ingredients often used in commercial milk chocolates. When you buy chocolate, would you really want to go for chocolate that’s made up mainly of sugar and undefined vegetable fat, or would you prefer a chocolate that uses mainly cocoa butter and powder; the ingredients that we would assume chocolate is made of?

 

Nutrition information

For most products, the nutrition and calorie information on the back is given either for 100g or for 1 serving which is usually less than 100g. When you look at the calories you are consuming, you need to consider how much of the product you are actually going to eat, and the calories that amount is going to give you. If for example the calorie information on the product states that 1 serving (30g) has 200 calories, but you see that the whole package has 120g and you are planning on eating it all, you will consume 800 calories.

Paying attention to this is not only important when it comes to calories, but also if you’re watching your sugar, salt or fat intake as the information for them will usually also be listed for either 100g or 1 serving.

 

Sugar

It’s well known that over-consuming added sugar is bad for our health, and food manufacturers know it too. Of course their main goal is to sell their product, which is why you will often find them trying to disguise the sugar content on the ingredient label. A few examples for “sugar under a different name” are: sucrose, high fructose corn syrup, glucose, fructose, glucose-fructose syrup, agave nectar, molasses, fruit juice concentrate, rice syrup,…

Another thing you will find is that in order to be able to list sugar lower down on the ingredient list, the total sugar content of a product might come from two or more different types of sugar. This way, only half the amount of each type of sugar is used, so the names can be listed further down the ingredient list. Of course, the total sugar content of the product stays the same, it just comes from several different sources. An example for this would be: vegetable fat, cocoa butter, sugar, skimmed milk powder, glucose-fructose syrup, cocoa powder. As you can see, I just took the ingredient list from before, placed sugar further down the list, but also added glucose-fructose syrup to replace the missing sugar part.

That’s why this is an important addition to the first point in this post about the order of ingredients. If you’re looking out for sugar, look at the order of ingredients, but also check if there is more than one type of sugar listed, and check the nutrition information to see how much of the total calories come from sugar.

 

Artificial Trans Fats

Trans fats are bad for us for multiple reasons. They can have negative effects on heart health, increase the risk of type 2 diabetes and increase increase inflammation which is suspected to play a big part in many chronic, western diseases.

The biggest source of trans fats are hydrogenated vegetable oils. Because they are cheap and have a long shelf life, they are often used in processed foods. Some examples of  products likely to contain trans fats are processed baked goods like cakes, pies, cookies and biscuits, fried fast foods, margarine, flavoured microwave popcorn, processed breakfast sandwiches and frozen dinners.

Avoiding trans fats completely is hard because they are in so many products and are not always listed (some regular vegetable oils can contain trans fats), but you can make sure to minimise trans fat consumption by avoiding products that have the words “hydrogenated” or “partially hydrogenated” on the ingredients list.

What do you pay attention to when buying food?

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