Food Labels - What you need to know - Part 1
Updated: Jan 15, 2020
If you are trying to eat more whole foods, knowing what to look for on a nutrition label is useful. There are 2 key areas to focus on when looking for nutrition information - the ingredients list and the nutrition label. The ingredient list is by far the most important, so let's start there.
According to the Government of Canada website,
Ingredients are listed in order of weight, beginning with the ingredient that weighs the most and ending with the ingredient that weighs the least. This means that a food contains more of the ingredients found at the beginning of the list, and less of the ingredients at the end of the list.
(Small digression here: this was news to me - I always thought that ingredients were listed in order quantity, and in the US, per the FDA website, this is indeed true - "ingredients are listed order of predominance, with the ingredients used in the greatest amount first, followed in descending order by those in smaller amounts". Apparently Canada is slightly different. This then led me to question the second statement above, "this means that a food contains more of the ingredients found at the beginning of the list, and less of the ingredients at the end of the list" - which when I initially read, I interpreted it to mean that they are indeed listed in order of quantity. I went down to my kitchen and did a little experiment to prove to myself that this would not be true, and in fact 3/4 cup of sugar weighs more than one cup of flour, so on an ingredient list, sugar would be listed first before flour, even though technically the quantity of flour was higher. Re-reading the sentence again however, you can see that it's more of a generalization and true that ingredients found at the beginning are in greater quantities than those at the end, but not necessarily is order. Hmmm?? This is why I always double check my knowledge and facts before I share them. 😊 )
Knowing the ingredients in your food is important because this is what you are putting into your body, and regardless of whether it's by weight or quantity, here are the guidelines that I use to determine the quality of packaged foods and whether or not I choose to eat them or feed them to my family.
The fewer the ingredients the better - generally I look for items with 5 or fewer ingredients
All ingredients should be pronounceable by a 10 year old
All ingredients should be something you stock in your pantry or fridge or something you can purchase at the grocery store
Does not contain hydrogenated vegetable oils, trans fats, glucose-fructose or high fructose corn syrup. I also avoid products that contain industrial seed oils like canola, corn, soy or cottonseed.
Does not contain wheat flour or sugar as either of the first 2 ingredients.
Here are two examples of products that pass my guidelines:
Rice Cakes: brown rice, sesame seeds
Frank's Red Hot sauce: aged cayenne red peppers, vinegar, water, salt, garlic powder
And two that don't:
Kraft French Dressing: water, soybean oil, sugar, vinegar, salt, mustard, paprika, xanthan gum, propylene glycol alginate (what the heck is this?? - the same ingredient as used in antifreeze…), spices, calcium disodium EDTA (haven't seen this on the grocery store shelf lately)
Oreos: wheat flour, sugar, modified palm oil, vegetable oil, cocoa, glucose-fructose, wheat and/or corn starch, salt, soy lecithin, baking soda, ammonium bicarbonate, unsweetened chocolate, artificial flavour (artificial as in not natural) and way more than 5 ingredients
Here's a comparison between 2 brands of pizza sauce:
Primo Pizza Squeeze (the fact that it's called squeeze and not sauce might be the first hint that it's not the best choice): water, crushed tomatoes, tomato paste, sugar, soybean or canola oil, modified corn starch, salt, dehydrated onion, dehydrated garlic, spices, sodium benzoate, citric acid.
Classico Pizza Sauce: tomato puree, water, diced tomatoes, tomato juice, sugar, olive oil, salt, dehydrated garlic, citric acid.
I would choose the second as it uses olive oil, a healthy fat, over vegetable oils and it contains fewer thickener and preservatives.
Now it's your turn, grab a few different packaged foods that are in your house and apply the guidelines above. Do they mostly meet the guidelines? Did you find any surprises?
In part two, we'll explore the Nutrition Facts label.