How I read a food label

I was thinking about food labels recently as I scanned yet another new food product at the grocery store. It's become something of a hobby. "Oh, second ingredient evaporated cane juice (AKA sugar) and then at the end 'natural' (my quotation marks) flavors." The verdict: processed food. I don't need to know any more than that. Don't care about calories or fat grams or the other things we have been told to focus on.

I cannot remember the last time I cared how many calories were in the food I was eating. I didn't count them when I finally lost weight for real, I mean real fat burning, mind-stimulating weight loss that stayed off. I certainly counted them like crazy in many previous unsuccessful attempts. Dr. Robert Lustig has an amazing video on why a calorie is not a calorie.  They're not worth counting. Matter of fact, they are likely to create a problem as most of the folks counting them do so in a way that creates malnutrition and stunted metabolism by trying to keep the number too low.

I also don't care about the fat grams.  That ship sailed long ago. Ever since the low fat craze started, we've only increased in size and worsened in health. When you take fat out of a food, you are processing it.  Strike one. Strike two is that the food tastes poorly when the fat's gone. Ever taste heavy whipping cream? What a rich taste in a small dose. Strike three? How do you think you get a food to taste good after you remove the fat? Evaporated cane juice, brown rice syrup, or agave, or any of the other fancy names for our health's enemy: sugar.

So I don't bother with the top half of the label. All the numbers and percentages are the food industry's way of trying to justify an unhealthy, processed food as something you can feel good about. They can manipulate these franken-foods to meet any percentage they want, but the problem is the more they do this the more your food is processed.

If there is anything I look at on the label, it's the sugars and fiber numbers. That gives you an idea of how sweetened and processed a food is. Aim for the lowest grams of sugars with highest fiber grams when comparing between several brands. Better yet, just skip to the ingredients. That's where the money is. Here's your priority list:

1. Can't find the ingredients label? Place in cart.
You are holding a whole food (ie. tomato, broccoli, avacado, chicken breast).

2. Ask yourself, if given the time and the skill, could you go to the market and make that food today after finding each individual ingredient? If you answer yes, proceed to #3.
Hint: Monosodium glutamate cannot be found in the spice aisle. Nor can you find a good jar of hydrogenated oil or red dye 40.

3. Is there more than one sweetener in the ingredients? If yes, save for a rare treat or just move on. If there is only one, move to #4.
This is the way that food makers make heavily sweetened foods seem like there isn't much in there. You see the ingredients list is in order of quantity of the ingredient. So when you don't see sugar as the first one or two ingredients, you start to feel better about it. The truth of the matter is you may be eating more sugar and therefore spiking your fat-storing hormone, insulin, even higher by eating a food that contains: whole grain, almonds, honey, walnuts, evaporated cane juice, oats, or molasses than one that lists sugar as the first ingredient.

4. Is the sweetener at the bottom of the list of ingredients? Chances are you've got a relatively low processed food that is mildly sweetened (as long as the sugar grams are low, less than 10 per serving).
The exceptions to this are whole foods that have added sugar. Ice cream and yogurt fit this category. Few ingredients, most of them recognizable and things we could make at home. But they are so sugar-laden as to better be placed in the candy aisle than the dairy case. Avoid all of this sugar and make them at home! Add 1/4 of the sugar a standard recipe would suggest and you can enjoy with real fruit knowing your insulin levels aren't shooting through the roof.

Does this help? Need more help with label reading and grocery shopping? Leave a comment...

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Dr. Jeffrey Gladd


Dr. Jeffrey Gladd graduated from Indiana University School of Medicine in 2001. He then went on to train in family medicine...

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Dr. Jeffrey Gladd
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