Unhealthy, unbalanced eating habits may lead to development of many chronic health issues, from heart disease to diabetes and other disorders. This issue is extremely prevalent in modern age – and contrary to popular belief, not only Western countries are suffering from the unhealthy eating plague, with countries experiencing rapid economic growth being extremely susceptible to unhealthy dietary habits as well.

And it’s not only about motivating people to make healthier choices, as most people know that eating whole, unprocessed foods is good for them. So, knowing what to do theoretically is not that much of a problem.

How exactly to make these healthy choices when bombarded with advertisements, supermarket specials and clever packaging – that’s a completely different story, and a much more challenging task for most people than simply admitting that an apple is healthier than a slob of caramel sauce.

Understanding food labels can help people make better dietary choices – but it can be very challenging, to the point where shoppers avoid it altogether. It doesn’t help that in some countries figuring out nutrition values requires a math degree, or at least a powerful calculator. Food manufacturers quite enjoy it that way, as it enables them to sell subpar produce in fancy packaging, disguised by long words and endless numbers.

If you’re feeling confused, don’t feel bad – we were too at one point! However, realising that knowing how to read food labels quickly and efficiently is necessary to improve nutrition and make healthier choices, we did our extensive research, so you don’t have to!

Today, we proudly present to you a series of useful tips, otherwise known as our ultimate guide to reading nutritional food labels!

Read the ingredients first

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To put it simply, everything in the processed food item must be listed in the ingredients list. If the food doesn’t have such a list attached, it’s most likely a piece of fruit or a vegetable, which is great news!

You may not understand every single thing in the ingredients list, but there are a couple of surprisingly easy life hacks that will help you navigate the list like a boss.

The most important truth about the ingredients list is the following:

 So if, for example, the first ingredient in your “fruit dessert” is sugar, you’re mostly paying for the latter, not for the actual fruit which may very well be reduced to flavour additives and enhancers instead of the actual thing.

A good rule of a thumb for everyday foods is to avoid products which have fat, sugar or salt as first ingredients. If that’s the case, and you find yourself reaching for the item frequently – consider finding an alternative or preparing a healthier version yourself.  

Another factor to consider is just how long the ingredients list is. Less is definitely more, and the fewer lengthy names you see – the less likely you are to eat a chemical bomb instead of a “nutty fruit bar”.

Trying to reduce your sugar intake? Here’s a tip for you: everything on the ingredient list ending in “-ose” is sugar. There are close to a 100 different names for sugar on nutrition labels, and with many people trying to reduce the amount of processed sugars consumed, many manufacturers are being sneaky about the sugar content of their foods by using fancy code words. But now that you know the “-ose” secret (think glucose, galactose, dextrose and such!), you can’t be fooled.

And finally, another golden rule of nutrition: “If you can’t read it, don’t eat it!” According to Lisa Hayim, MS, RD, “if an ingredient sounds complex, or like a word straight out of chemistry class, chances are it is added to artificially preserve the food or sweeten it”. Of course, it’s worth mentioning that some perfectly healthy ingredients hide behind long scientific names, and this rule has to be implemented with good judgement – but we’re pretty sure you get the idea!

Think about more than just calories, protein, carbs & fats

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Indeed, calories and macronutrients are important – however,

For example, there is no need to constantly go for low calorie foods, as if consumed at right times, more energy dense foods (provided they’re made predominantly with healthy ingredients – see the previous tip) can keep you fuller for longer, reducing the need for constant snacking and therefore lowering the total calorie count.

Another very important factor to consider is the suggested serving size, which has to be listed on the nutrition panel (with or without the nutritional breakdown for a single serving, depending on where you live). The trick here is that the manufacturers hide behind the “enjoy responsibly” claims, whilst the amount you’re actually accustomed to consuming is often greater than the suggested portion. Unfortunately, the serving sizes are often designed to make the nutritional content look better than it is, not the other way around.

To avoid overeating and get the most of your food, stick to the serving sizes as closely as you can! And if the suggested serving size is so tiny you need a microscope to see it…ask yourself, is it really a quality item you want to consume on a regular basis, or a very, very occasional treat at the most.

Key ingredients you want to avoid

Everything is good in moderation, and you can certainly enjoy a wide variety of foods, including the “non-ideal” discretionary choices, with no guilt, provided you’re healthy, active and your weight doesn’t fluctuate too much. This is called balance, and we’re all for that!

However, we’d still like to put it out there: there are certain ingredients that you want to avoid putting on your tongue on a regular basis.

Key foods and ingredients to avoid:

  • Foods with over 1,000 mg of sodium per serving. It is recommended for healthy adults to consume less than 2,300 mg of sodium per day to avoid water retention, hypertension and other health issues.
  • Processed foods with over 10 g of added sugars per serving. We’d like to stress here that naturally occurring sugars, like those found in whole fruits and veggies, are absolutely fine as they are also accompanied by fibre, an amazing digestion-slowing nutrient which keeps sugar highs at bay.
  • Artificial sweeteners. Although artificial sweeteners are very low in calories, they may still be harmful. Recent research suggests that artificial sweeteners may be harmful for gut flora and may also induce weight gain, so try to limit their consumption!
  • Partially hydrogenated oils. These were invented several decades ago to promote longer shelf life of oils, and have unfortunately been linked to increased risk of heart disease and other health complications. With so many healthy alternatives available, it is best to avoid these nasty oils altogether.

How to determine minimally processed foods

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First of all, don’t let the term “processed” scare you off automatically – after all, even chopping the vegetables into a stir fry mix or wrapping apples in plastic wrap is technically “processing”.

However, it’s a perfectly healthy goal to aim for purchasing mostly minimally processed foods, including fresh-cut, cooked-chilled, and part-baked products. These foods are often have additional nutritional and health benefits, such as easy consumption, fortification and preserving nutrients for seasons and/or locations where they are not available fresh (e.g. canned fruit in own juice or tinned fish in spring water).

Ultimately, if the food is unrecognizable in its processed form, it’s likely more heavily processed – and the other way around. The ultimate examples are foods that look nothing like the ingredients listed (e.g. “potato chips” that don’t resemble potatoes anymore), or products that aren’t naturally occurring, such as sodas, cookies, lollies and muffins.

– the bottom line here is to always look out for hidden nasties (which the tips above will help you with).

Conclusion

We hope you found the tips above helpful and feel much more confident when it comes to understanding nutritional labels!

Remember though: the best way to enjoy a healthy diet is to choose unprocessed, fresh ingredients and prepare balanced meals yourself. No food labels – no problem!