Counting Labels

Ingredients & Nutrition Facts

There is a wide variety of packaged foods from deli meats and cheeses to powdered donuts to "healthy" alternatives. When you become conscious of what you're eating, it's easy to get confused when trying to read the label. 

"What's more important - Knowing what's in your food, or knowing how many calories are in your food?" "There are some ingredients I can't pronounce, should I still buy it?" We put together a few of our favorite tips to answers these questions and make the label reading process a little easier. 

Become a Label Reading Master

Read the ingredient list first and the nutrition panel second:

We believe the most important thing is knowing exactly what is in your food. Foods are listed on the ingredients label in order of weight. A few "trigger" ingredients to look out for, especially when they're towards the top of the list, are monosodium glutamate (MSG), hydrogenated oils, sodium nitrate or nitrite, high fructose corn syrup, and other artificial sweeteners, flavorings, or colors. If you see an item that contains one or more of these, it's best to place it back on the shelf. As a rule of thumb, look for foods you recognize or would expect to be in the product. For example, you'd expect split peas and water to be in split pea soup, but wouldn't expect sodium nitrite. 

Sugar goes by a variety of names:

When looking out for added and artificial sugars, there are over 20 names to look out for. Some of the most common include: sugar, cane sugar, brown sugar, high fructose corn syrup, aspartame, acesulfame K, corn syrup, corn sweetener, saccharin, fruit juice concentrates, malt sugar, invert sugar, molasses, syrup, agave nectar, honey, sugar alcohols ending in "itol" such as xylitol and sorbitol, and any sugar molecules ending in "ose" such as dextrose, fructose, sucrose, laxtose, maltose, and glucose. Artificial sweeteners are proven to be harmful to health. Count the number of times you see sugar appear on the label and be weary when foods contain more than one source of sugar (regardless of the number of grams per serving).

Fill your cart with foods that don't have labels:

Foods in the produce section do not need labels. The FDA refers to raw produce as "conventional" foods, and nutrition labeling is not required. These foods are whole and are the best options to fill your cart (and your belly!) up with. We know life is busy and it's not always possible to cook everything from scratch. Opting for pre-sliced and/or washed items in the produce section can save you time (but do tend to cost a little more). When you need shortcuts, find some trusted brands of packaged goods and balance these out with items from the produce section. For example, Hilary's makes great veggie burgers and these become a meal when eaten with baked sweet potatoes, sautรฉed green beans, and sliced avocado.

When in doubt, look for help:

Third party labels are there to help you understand where your food came from and what is in your food. These organizations manage food certification programs and help you make informed choices when shopping. Look for foods with these labels: USDA Organic, Non-GMO Project Verified, Certified Humane, and Food Alliance Certified. There is strict criteria and regulations companies must follow in order to gain these certifications. Follow the links to learn more about the process and guidelines. [Note: Foods that are labeled USDA Organic are also certified non-GMO products (but Non-GMO Project Verified does not mean USDA Organic). Companies need to pay for each certification/label on their products, and some companies may opt to use just one form of certification even though their product meets the criteria for more than one.

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