What's in your food? -Reading a Food Package

I believe that learning to shop and read food packages is a major key element in health. Reading the package and Nutrition Facts panel of a food product can be a bit challenging. What should we look for? Most of us just turn it around and look at how many calories, fat, or sugar it contains and disregard the most important information on the packaging: INGREDIENTS. This will tell you exactly what you are ingesting into your body. Reading the ingredient list is the quickest way to filter out anything that is not good for you. I strive to buy mainly natural fresh products when I go to the grocery store, but there are some things that do come in a package and reading the ingredient list is the first thing I do regardless of what the packaging says.

Here are some guidelines to follow when reading the ingredient list of a product:

  • First of all, if it has more than 5 or 6 ingredients, it's probably already not good for you. Processed foods contain a high amount of ingredients that are added to preserve texture, flavor, and shelf life and most are harmful to our health.
  • Ingredients are listed in descending order. Avoid products with added sugars that are not natural. Most processed foods hide the presence of sugar with names like "evaporated cane juice/syrup," "corn syrup," "high fructose corn syrup," "fructose," "maltodextrin," "natural flavors," and many others. If something contains added sugar, it is most likely refined and will only spike your blood sugar and leave you wanting more. 
  • Avoid products that contain "partially hydrogenated oils," which are trans fats. A trans fat occurs when a oil is chemically processed in order to be solid at room temperature. The consumption of trans fats can lead to an increased risk for heart disease. Note that the FDA allows manufacturers to list "0 trans fats" if the product contains 0.5g or less of trans fats, which is why it's important to read the ingredient list.
  • When buying bread: Avoid flours that are "refined," "unrefined," "enriched," "bleached," and "unbleached." These are all processes that harm the grain and don't provide the nutrients that the whole grain provides. Look for products that list "100% whole wheat" or "100% whole grain" and watch those added sugars like I mentioned previously. Bread should not contain added sugars or fats/oils. 
  • Watch out for "soy lecithin." Soy lecithin is an oily substance that is extracted from soy beans. It is added to many processed foods and used as an emulsifier (helps keep ingredients together). Most soy is genetically modified (GMO) and it is important to avoid this ingredient in food and/or look for Organic and non-GMO Soy lecithin. 

Now that you have read your ingredient list, let's take a closer look at the Nutrition Facts panel and what are key facts you should focus on:

  • Serving Size and Servings Per Container- Keep these in mind and remember that the information listed is the amount per serving, not per container. 
  • Calories- Make sure these are fairly low and look out for foods with 200 or more calories per serving because overconsumption is more common and may lead to double or triple the calories, especially if you eat the entire package. 
  • Total Fat- This will help you manage the amount of fat you consume daily and remember it is listed as grams per serving and this too could add up if consuming an entire package of something. 
  • Saturated Fat- These are the fats that you should limit the consumption of to avoid an increased risk for heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and high blood pressure. Note that saturated fats occur naturally in meats, dairy, and refined oils and should also be monitored. Choose leaner meats like chicken and fish and low-fat or nonfat dairy products when possible. 
  • Trans Fat- These are the kinds of fats that should be avoided completely and are very harmful for our health. 
  • Unsaturated Fat (Polyunsaturated and Monounsaturated)- These fats exist naturally in nuts, seeds, unrefined oils, and grains. 
  • Sodium- Most processed foods are packed with sodium. Avoid added sodium as much as possible and look for "sea salt" in the ingredient list to avoid refined salt. 
  • Dietary Fiber- If consuming a food product that claims to be "whole wheat" or "whole grain," it should have at least 3g of fiber per serving.
  • Sugar- Look for products low in sugar and look at ingredient list to make sure there isn't any added sugar. Fruit is naturally high in sugar. 
  • Protein- This is a good way to keep track of total protein daily intake especially if you're a vegetarian or vegan and need to get protein from other sources other than animal products. Nuts, seeds, legumes, and grains can all provide protein for these diets. 
The FDA has some standard rules that food manufacturers have to follow when writing nutrition facts and claims on food packaging. Here are some common claims and what they really mean:

Food Claim
One Serving Contains
Sugar Free
Less than 0.5g of sugar
Fat Free
Less than 0.5g of fat
Low Fat
3g of fat or less
Reduced Fat or Less Fat
At least 25% less fat than regular product
Low in Saturated Fat
1g of sat fat or less
Less than 10g of fat, 4.5g of sat fat and 95mg of cholesterol
Extra Lean
Less than 5g of fat, 2g of sat fat and 95mg of cholesterol
Light or Lite
At least 1/3 fewer calories or no more than half the fat of the regular product
Cholesterol Free
Less than 2mg of cholesterol and 2g or less of sat fat
Low Cholesterol
20 or fewer mg of cholesterol and 2g or less of sat fat
Reduced Cholesterol
At least 25% less cholesterol than the regular product and 2g or less of sat fat
Sodium Free or No Sodium
Less than 5mg and no sodium chloride listed in ingredients
Very Low Sodium
35mg or less of sodium
Low Sodium
140mg or less of sodium
Reduced or Less Sodium
At least 25% less than the regular product
High Fiber
5g or more of fiber
Good Source of Fiber
2.5 to 4.9g of fiber

You now have all the tools to hopefully be able to make healthier choices when buying packaged foods at the grocery store. Feel free to refer back to this whenever you need and/or print it out. You can also contact me with further questions. I am happy to be of assistance and help get you one step closer to purifying your health!


The World's Healthiest Foods http://whfoods.com/
Bauman College