How to Read a Food Label 101

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It’s the wild wild west out there when it comes to food claims. Just because a box of cereal says “lowers cholesterol!” or “low in sugar” or “natural” doesn’t mean that it is, it also doesn’t mean that it is good for your health. It is important to educate yourself on how to read a food label so that you can put the power of decision making into your own hands.

Did you know that the higher up an ingredient is on a list, the more of that ingredient is in the food? For example, if sugar is the first ingredient on a product, you best believe there’s a lot of sugar in it. Best to opt for a different product. If you care about your health and about the quality of the foods you put into your body (everyone should be raising their hands right now) then you should care about putting the time into learning how to read a food label.

In general, if the ingredient on a list sounds like a scientific concoction made in a lab, it likely is and you should probably limit your consumption of foods with that ingredient in them. Additionally, if the list of ingredients takes up the entire side of the box, it is a heavily processed food and has a lot of ingredients in it that are poor for your health. You should KNOW without a doubt what each ingredient is in your food, because, well, because it should be real food ingredients and not chemicals made in a lab.

What does “fortified” mean on a food label? Fortified means that synthetic nutrients have been added to a food that doesn’t normally contain that nutrient. For example, milk “fortified” with Vitamin D means that synthetic Vitamin D has been added to that food. Unfortunately, the types of synthetic nutrients added into foods are low quality and not in the form of the vitamin/mineral that the body can readily use. It is best to get these nutrients from REAL food sources, or to take a professional grade multivitamin that contains high quality forms of the nutrient, if not a real whole food based form.

What does “enriched” mean on a food label? Enriched means that a food has been HEAVILY processed to the point that all of the nutrients in it were lost. Because the nutrients were lost and the food is essentially now a calorie dense / nutrient poor food, synthetic forms of the nutrient were added back in. Now, this isn’t necessarily a good thing AT ALL. The forms of nutrients added back in, again, are going to be of low quality and low usability by the body (i.e. folic acid - a topic for another conversation). Instead of eating a food that is so processed that all of the nutrients have been stripped from it, I recommend eating a food that hasn’t been processed and is in its whole form, thus containing all of its natural nutrients. Nothing beats real, whole foods. Not even a good multivitamin. So try to make sure you’re getting your nutrients from real, whole food ingredients that are rich in naturally occurring vitamins and minerals FIRST, and supplement with a premium quality multivitamin second.

Deciphering Macronutrient Make-Up: Macronutrients are your proteins, fats, and carbohydrates. Not all are made equal. On a food label, if you see that there are any grams of trans fats, sound the alarms, drop your grocery list, and run away. Look for predominantly unsaturated fats, with a little saturated fats. Saturated fats such as coconut oil or ghee are great in moderation. High animal fat intake (which is saturated fat) is contraindicated for a lot of people. So just be aware of what it is in the food that is adding to the saturated fat content.

As far as carbohydrates go, focus on the sugar content, not total carbs. The maximum about of added sugar you should have in a day is 25g per person on average. If there is added sugar in a food, sometimes the label will show amount in grams of ADDED sugars… this is what you really want to be aware of. But in general, watch the amount of sugar in your food. And again, the higher up “sugar",” or “cane sugar” is on a food label, the more there is of it in the food. Total carbohydrates will include sugars, fiber, and complex carbs. Opt for foods that have more fiber in them than added sugars. Aim for 25-30g fiber per day. The best kinds of fiber comes from fruits and vegetables, which ironically don’t have a food label despite being the best foods for human health.

Its pretty straightforward with protein. You should get 0.8-1g protein per kilogram of body weight. So pull our your calculators and determine how much protein you should get in a day. In general, you should have 15-20g protein with each meal. Protein (& fat) helps to buffer the effects of sugar on your blood stream.

Below are some lists to help get you started.

Top Ingredients to Avoid:

Hydrogenated oils

Corn syrup

High fructose corn syrup

Food dyes (all colors… it’ll read Red #2 or Red #40)

Sodium nitrite/benzoate

Artificial flavor/sweetener

Monosodium glutamate (MSG)

Ingredients to avoid for gluten allergy or intolerance:

Barley

Enriched, self-risin, graham, or durum flour

Emulsifiers

Food starch or modified FS

Gluten flour

Hydrolyzed vegetable protein

Oat

Malt flavoring

Malt or cereal extracts

Kamut

Rye

Soy-sauce

Stabilizers

Thickeners

Triticale

Wheat starch

Wheat

Wheat germ/bran

Wheat based semolina

Ingredients to avoid for dairy intolerance:

Binding agents, fillers

Brown sugar or caramel flavoring

Butter

Buttermilk solids

Casein hydrolysate

Casein, caseinate

Cheese

Cream

Curds

High protein flour

Ice cream

Lactate, lactic acid

Lactoalbumin

Lactoalbumin phosphate

Lactoglobulin

Lactose, lactulose

Margarine

Milk solids

Rennet casein

Simplesse

Sodium caseinate

Some seasonings

Whey, whey solid

Using Whole Foods to Balance Blood Sugar, and Why this is so Important For Your Health

So let’s start with a conversation about whole foods, what that really means and why this buzz word is important. Whole food is real food, food in its unaltered form, food produced from the earth in a form that our bodies know how to process. A good hint is: A whole food has only one ingredient.

Whole Foods, such as vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, pasture raised meats, legumes and whole grains come packed with various nutrients that our bodies - particularly our brains - 100% need in order to function optimally. Our cell membranes are made from fats, our neurotransmitters are produced from amino acids (building blocks of protein) coupled with vitamin and mineral cofactors. To add more to the story, Whole Foods have rich phytonutrients that are what the plant uses to defend itself in its environment. When consumed, these constituents help OUR cells to protect themselves from oxidative stress - or stress in our environment.

Processed foods, such as breads, chips, crackers, pizza, most pastas, white rice, candy, etc are stripped of most of these nutrients. So, if your diet consists of primarily processed foods - what is your brain going to use to produce neurotransmitters? What are your cells going to use to protect themselves from damage? When getting down to the bottom of most of our country’s chronic disease and mental health disorders, it is imperative to start with a focus on a Whole Foods based diet. Try it for a month, your cells will thank you, your brain will thank you, and soon enough you’ll start thanking yourself.

Did you know that hypoglycemia can manifest as symptoms of intense anxiety and panic? Poor blood sugar handling by the body can make you feel like you’re constantly fighting an uphill battle. Which leads me to our second important topic on eating to support optimal health, both mental and physical. Effectively managing your blood sugar is a crucial foundational aspect to any treatment regimen. Eating unbalanced meals full of processed and refined carbohydrates spikes blood sugar and can lead to insulin resistance, followed by hypoglycemia and a rollercoaster of emotions throughout the day

So what does a balanced meal look like? Half your plate should be full of non-starchy vegetables or fruits. This provides the necessary fiber and nutrients to slow down the uptake of glucose into your blood stream. Complex carbohydrates such as a sweet potato, fruit, or whole grains (buckwheat, quinoa) are also long lasting sources of fuel that don’t hit the blood stream as quickly. Coupled with some healthy protein and fats, such as wild caught fish, olive oil, coconut oil, etc makes for a truly balanced and nourishing meal. Think of it as putting logs in the fire, versus the twigs of refined sugars and flours.

Each meal or snack should be balanced with complex (not refined) carbohydrates, healthy fats and protein. I recommend eating breakfast within 30 minutes of waking up, eating lunch between noon and 1:30, and dinner around 6:30 or 7. Two snacks in between meals could consist of a granny smith apple with some nut butter, or veggies and some hummus. If you tend to wake up in the middle of the night, it could be due to a cortisol burst from low blood sugar, meaning you didn’t get enough complex carbohydrates into your blood stream before bed. Try a small snack before bed and see if that helps. I like dark frozen cherries mixed with some walnuts - cherries are a natural source of melatonin and walnuts add some protein and fat to slow absorption of the glucose from the cherries.

Try the brain boosting smoothie recipe provided in our recipes section for a quick and easy breakfast to set your blood sugar up for success for the day!