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Understanding Food Labels: A Nutritionist's Guide

Welcome to the world of nutrition labels, where deciphering the mysteries of your favourite foods becomes as entertaining as your favourite Netflix series!


In the quest for healthier eating, it's easy to get lost in the supermarket aisles, wondering which foods are truly good for you and which ones are just cleverly marketed as such. Who hasn't fallen into the low-calorie, "diet-friendly" trap at least once, only to discover that hidden sugars and sneaky carbs were lurking within?


But fear not, fellow foodies, for I'm here to unravel the enigma of nutrition labels and make your shopping experience not only healthier but also a whole lot more enjoyable.


So, what's the secret weapon that can guide you to smarter food choices? It's none other than the humble nutrition facts label!


Imagine it as your food detective, revealing the secrets of what you're about to consume. With its help, you can finally decipher the cryptic code of ingredients, uncover the truth about those mysterious unsaturated fats, and gain insight into the sneaky world of refined carbohydrates.

But, I hear you, it can be a bit overwhelming when you're faced with a label that looks more like an intricate puzzle. Percentages, serving sizes, daily values – it's enough to make anyone's head spin.


So, let's embark on this journey together, where we'll unravel the secrets of nutrition labels and arm you with the knowledge to make informed choices that will have you feeling healthier, happier, and more confident in your food selections. Trust me, it's going to be a deliciously enlightening adventure!


HOW TO READ FOOD LABELS


STEP 1: Read Beyond the hype - Don't judge a product by its label.


Look at food labels for what they are, purely a marketing tool! So be weary and sceptical of baiting phrases, for example “cholesterol free”, “low fat” and “natural”. Did you know that research shows that consumers are more likely to buy products with health claims, but the truth is that many of these claims are misleading. Ok let’s dive into a few of them.


“Natural”


In today's health-conscious world, we've become more discerning about the food we put into our bodies. Therefore, we gravitate towards labels like “natural” but is it really that natural? This term is not regulated and can be used very loosely. Also, be careful when it says “natural flavours” as well, natural flavours are heavily processed, and can contain many chemical additives. As such, natural flavours aren’t all that different to artificial flavours in terms of chemical composition and subsequent effects on our health.


“Cholesterol Free”


Here’s the thing: Cholesterol only comes from animal products therefore, if you see this label on something packaged e.g. oatmeal or nut bars, it’s pointless because it’s already a given. Recent studies indicate that it’s genetics—not cholesterol consumption—that impact your cholesterol levels.


“Organic”


While "organic" seems like a more reliable label, it too can be misleading. Organic foods are grown without synthetic pesticides, herbicides, and genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and is at least 95% organic, which is undoubtedly a positive aspect. However, there's a catch. The term "organic" doesn't necessarily equate to a product being healthier, more nutritious or best suited to your dietary needs. An organic cookie is still a cookie, often high in sugar and unhealthy fats.

Moreover, organic farming practices can vary widely. Some organic farms prioritise sustainability and soil health, while others may merely meet the minimum organic certification requirements. So, it's crucial to recognise that "organic" doesn't automatically mean a product is a nutritional superstar. Finally, “made with organic ingredients” also has a different meaning. This means at least 70 percent of the ingredients are organic.


“Gluten free”


Gluten-free labels can also be deceptive. It does mean that they are gluten free or low gluten if that what the label indicates. However, these foods can still have many added sugars, additives, and preservatives and may not be a great choice for your body or your blood sugar response. When the structural protein (gluten) of the starch is removed, manufacturers have to add other ingredients to make their products taste good, and that added ingredient is typically sugar. So make sure you read what else is in the product.


STEP 2: Read the ingredients list


The list of ingredients is as important as the nutrition facts but we are hear to avoid the nasties rather than focus on numbers. If a food is high in fat or sugar, look where it comes from. Is it natural in the food or from added refined sugar or oils? When looking at the ingredient list, be up to date on your good fats and common names for added sugar. For example, 10 grams of natural healthy fat in guacamole is better for you than 10 grams of fat in a portion of chips fried in industrial-seed oil such as soybean. Labels list ingredients from the most to least abundant. If a package indicates that additives are “less than two percent by volume,” opt for that over a product with no indicators.


Ingredients to avoid


  • MSG (found in many dressings, sauces, meats, and cheeses) - MSG is a flavor enhancer commonly used in processed and restaurant foods. While it's generally recognised as safe, some people may experience adverse reactions such as headaches or nausea. It's a good idea to be aware of its presence in your food, especially if you're sensitive to it. It can be disguised as the following names: hydrolyzed protein, autolyzed yeast, monosodium salt, monohydrate, monosodium glutamate monohydrate, sodium 2-aminopentanedioate, monosodium L-glutamate monohydrate, sodium glutamate monohydrate, L-glutamic acid, monosodium salt, monohydrate and flavor enhancer E621

  • Hydrogenated oils – which are trans fats and are a dietary nightmare. They raise bad cholesterol levels while lowering good ones as well as increasing the risk of heart disease. Fortunately, many countries have banned or restricted their use, but it's still crucial to double-check labels, especially in processed and fried foods.

  • Artificial dyes (like blues 1 and 2, green 3, red 3, and yellow 6) - commonly used to make food products visually appealing. However, these synthetic colour additives have been linked to various health concerns, especially in children. Some studies suggest that artificial dyes may contribute to hyperactivity, allergies, and behavioural problems.

  • Nitrates and nitrites (typically found in processed meats) - Found in processed meats like bacon, hot dogs, and deli meats, sodium nitrate and nitrite are preservatives that can form harmful compounds when cooked at high temperatures. Limit your consumption of processed meats and choose nitrate/nitrite-free alternatives as these have links to cancer.

  • Maltodextrin - Maltodextrin is a common food additive used as a thickener, filler, or preservative in many processed foods. It has a high glycaemic index, meaning it can rapidly spike blood sugar levels. Additionally, maltodextrin is often derived from genetically modified (GM) corn, making it a concern for those seeking to avoid GM ingredients. There have also been studies outlining that maltodextrin can alter your gut microbiome and lead to dysbiosis

  • Carrageenan - This additive is a stabilising and emulsifying agent found in many food products. Carrageenan is extracted from seaweed and processed with alkaline substances. It has been seen to often cause digestive problems, such as bloating, irritable bowel disease (IBD), and inflammation.

  • Canola Oil (also known as rapeseed oil) - This oil is sourced from GMO crops and it is heavily processed and has no nutritional value.

  • Acidity regulator - Acidity regulators are culinary maestros, wielding their power to fine-tune the delicate dance of acidity and alkalinity in food. They're like the conductors of a gastronomic orchestra, ensuring the perfect balance for processing, flavor, and food safety. Neglecting their role can allow unwelcome bacteria to crash the culinary party, potentially turning it into a health hazard. Among the cast of common acidity regulators are ascorbic acid (our friendly Vitamin C), along with acetic, propionic, and benzoic acids. You'll recognize them by their acid credentials, marked with a trusty "E" before their numbers. However, like any talented performer, they can sometimes have their limits. In excessive quantities, they might even launch an unexpected assault on your tooth enamel. So, while they're the unsung heroes of food chemistry, a little moderation can go a long way.

  • Lecithin - Soy lecithin is used so commonly in our food supply because it acts as an emulsifier to ensure products don’t separate later. The issue with lecithin is the processing it goes through which includes usually being bleached with hydrogen peroxide and separated by hexane both of which can have residue in the product. The residues are not regulated. One paper noted that there can be 500-1000ppm of hexane residue. 


STEP 3: LOOK AT THE NUTRITION FACTS


it’s essential to look at the ingredients list to ensure that you don’t see mainly additives and substitutes. Look for foods that list primarily whole food sources on their ingredient lists.


Check out the serving size


Serving size provides a great reality check when determining your portion. Measure out two tablespoons of peanut butter; its shockingly not much for the calories.


Check out the fat content


When you look at the fat content, be sure to check out the grams of saturated fat and trans fat. Good rule of thumb is to avoid products like dairy, baked goods, and meats that contain over three grams of saturated fat.


Avoid trans fats at all costs


Trans fats go through a chemical process that turns them from liquid to solid. They’re bad news because they can lower your good cholesterol and raise your bad cholesterol. Consuming these fats also increases your risk for heart disease, stroke, and type-2 diabetes. (Note: Products are allowed to say they have zero grams of trans fat even if they contain a half gram or less. Be sure to check the ingredient list for partially hydrogenated oils.)


Check the Fiber content


You should aim to get 25 to 50 grams of fiber each day. If a product contains three or more grams of fiber, it’s considered a good source. Foods with five grams or more are considered excellent sources.


Beware of sodium levels


Sodium plays a significant role in packaged foods. The recommended daily sodium intake for adults stands at 3,400 milligrams, which is equivalent to less than two teaspoons. To enhance your sodium management, steer clear of single-serving foods that contain over 300 milligrams of sodium. For your main meals, aim for a sodium range of 500 to 700 milligrams. When it comes to canned or frozen foods, take a moment to review the sodium content. An effective method to determine whether a product is high or low in sodium is to apply the five-and-20 percent guideline. If the sodium content is at or below five percent, it qualifies as a reasonably low-sodium option. However, if it registers at 20% or higher, it's best to leave it on the shelf and seek out an alternative.


Check out the sugar content


Sugar on nutrition labels isn't just about what's naturally sweet; it's also about sneaky added sugars. When 10% of your daily calories come from added sugars, it's like an unwelcome dragon in your diet, making weight management challenging. It's advisable to steer clear of foods that list added sugar among the top five ingredients.


When looking at nutrition labels, make sure there are no added sugars. Depending on the food product, a range of 0.0 to 0.5 grams of sugar, is generally acceptable but it depends on the situation.


Beware of some alternative names for sugar include: high fructose corn syrup, agave nectar (or syrup), blackstrap molasses, carob syrup, fruit juice concentrate, rapadura, sorghum syrup, sucanat, barley malt, dextrin, dextrose, ethyl maltol, maltodextrin, maltose and galactose


FINAL TIPS ON HOW TO READ FOOD LABELS


Focus on whole foods and products with the least number of ingredients. My general rule of thumb is to avoid products with more than 5 ingredients and when I cant pronounced one of the ingredients I put the product back. Happy reading!


REFERENCES

  • Reverchon, E., Poletto, M., Osséo, L.S. et al. Hexane elimination from soybean oil by continuous packed tower processing with supercritical CO2 . J Amer Oil Chem Soc 77, 9–14 (2000). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11746-000-0002-z

  • Arnold, L. E., Lofthouse, N., & Hurt, E. (2012). Artificial food colors and attention-deficit/hyperactivity symptoms: conclusions to dye for. Neurotherapeutics : the journal of the American Society for Experimental NeuroTherapeutics, 9(3), 599–609. https://doi.org/10.1007/s13311-012-0133-x

  • Kanarek R. B. (2011). Artificial food dyes and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Nutrition reviews, 69(7), 385–391. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1753-4887.2011.00385.x

  • Olney J. W. (1969). Brain lesions, obesity, and other disturbances in mice treated with monosodium glutamate. Science (New York, N.Y.), 164(3880), 719–721. https://doi.org/10.1126/science.164.3880.719

  • Obayashi, Y., & Nagamura, Y. (2016). Does monosodium glutamate really cause headache? : a systematic review of human studies. The journal of headache and pain, 17, 54. https://doi.org/10.1186/s10194-016-0639-4




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