This topic is one that I feel pretty passionate about because many don’t realize how much crap is added to packaged foods. When you’re eating a whole food, plant-based diet, most of your food won’t have labels. This is a good thing, as natural foods tend not to have them. However, some products you buy will be in packages. It’s important to check out the label before an item makes its way into your cart. So, this post is all about being a savvy label reader. I’m going to show you exactly what to look for on those food labels. Let’s get to it.
This is literally the most important part of the packaging for you to read. It lists all ingredients included, in descending order, by weight. So, the first 5 ingredients are the ones it contains the most of, the last 5 would be least prevalent. This will help you make some decisions once you read through it.
Ideally, you want to look for foods with very limited ingredients, and ones that you actually recognize. For example, my daughter loves ramen noodles, but have you ever looked at the ingredients list on a ramen noodle packet? It sounds like a bad science experiment. Instead, I buy her a brand of ramen noodles made from whole grains. The ingredients are brown rice and millet. That’s it, that’s all. Both items I can recognize and no added chemicals. This is the goal.
Things to Look For
You should be buying plenty of foods that have no food labels at all (fruit and vegetables) or have very limited ingredients. (IE: a package of red lentils with an ingredient list that states simply: red lentils). However, I know most people will have a use for some packaged foods. This is okay, as long as you know what to look for.
It’s surprising how many food items they add animal products to that don’t even need them. Once you start reading food labels, you’ll notice just how many items have added ‘milk ingredients’ and other similar products. Look out for things like:
Eggs/Egg whites (often powdered in packaged foods)
Milk Ingredients/Milk powder
Casein – Protein from cow’s milk
Caseinate/Sodium caseinate – Made from casein
Whey/Whey powder/Whey protein – Also from cow’s milk
Albumen – From eggs
Lactose / Lactitol – Sugars from cow’s milk
Rennet/ Rennin /Pepsin – Enzymes produced in the digestive tract of certain animals
Collagen/Elastin/Keratin– Made from skin, bones and connective tissues of animals
Gelatin – Derived from collagen
When it comes to the grains in your foods, you want to be eating whole grains, and avoiding processed grains. Most processed or polished grains have the bran and germ layers removed, leaving just the endosperm. Unfortunately, most of the fibre and nutrients were contained in the bran and germ layers, so those refined grains don’t have much left to help you. The lack of fibre will also cause quick blood sugar spikes (after consumption) followed by a subsequent crash, that leaves you dragging through your afternoon.
Avoid any products with grains that are described as ‘enriched’, ‘bleached’, ‘processed’ or ‘refined’. Instead, aim for products where grains are referred to as ‘whole’ or ‘sprouted’. Sprouted grain products are made from whole grains that have been encouraged to sprout with moisture and a warm environment. These sprouts add some additional nutrients to the final product. When given the option, I would choose ‘sprouted’ over ‘whole’ for the added nutrients.
Most products on the shelves will contain added sugars. Some more than others. When reading the ingredients on a packaged item, you want to avoid anything that contains an added sugar within the first 3 ingredients. Remember, the ingredients at the top of the list make up more of the product than those listed later. The exception to this guideline would be if an item only has 3 ingredients, and sugar is the last one. In this case, that should be fine, but in general, you don’t want to see sweeteners high in the ingredient list.
Have you ever noticed that some food items tend to have multiple types of sugar added to them? This is done on purpose, and typically when the amount of sugar they use would push it toward the top of the list. Instead, they use a few different types of sugar. This reduces the weight of each ingredient and allows them to hide out in the middle to low-end of the ingredient list. This is called ingredient splitting and is done in the hope that you won’t notice how much sugar is actually added. Be aware of this as you read that ingredient list.
Sugar can go by many names on food labels. Some you will easily recognize, but some you may not. Here’s a quick list of some names you might find sugars labelled as in your ingredients list:
Anything ending in “-ose”: sucrose, dextrose, glucose-fructose, fructose, lactose, maltose, etc.
Some you may recognize: brown rice syrup, tapioca syrup, corn syrup, high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), maple syrup, agave nectar, cane juice, cane sugar, honey, molasses, coconut palm sugar, etc.
Some you may not recognize: erythritol, isomalt, lakanto, maltitol, mannitol, stevia, xylitol and more.
Also, keep a look out for artificial sugars. These are man-made chemical alternatives to sugar, typically with low to zero calories. This makes people think they are a great alternative to sugar, but they are unnatural substances. Remember, one of the main focuses of a WFPB diet is on whole plant foods, in as close to their natural forms as possible. Artificial sugars are not natural foods and have a questionable safety record. As such, they should be avoided.
Examples of artificial sweeteners are: acesulfame, aspartame, neotame, saccharin, and sucralose.
You’ve probably heard about trans fats and how we should avoid them. Trans fats can be found in some dairy products and certain meats. There are also artificial trans fats that are made by food manufacturers when they want a fat that is more solid than oil. This helps them increase the shelf life of their products, and produce them cheaply. Hydrogen is bubbled through a liquid fat (oil) to turn it into a more solid form. You’ll find this in products like margarine spreads, packaged snacks, fried food and other highly processed food.
This may seem innocuous, but the resulting product has poor effects on our health. These fats tend to increase bad cholesterol, lower good cholesterol and increase risk factors for cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes.
In general, it’s best to avoid products with any added oil, but keep an eye out for hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oils in your ingredient list. These are oils you should absolutely skip.
Front of Package Claims
Anything you read on the front of the package is for marketing purposes and may be a very loose version of the truth. For example, the packaging may state that the product is made with whole grains. Great! Except, when you read the ingredients, the first one is enriched wheat flour. Wait, that’s not a whole grain. Then way down the list you see it, rolled oats. Essentially, this product is made from refined grains, but they threw in some rolled oats at the end so they could slap that “whole grain” label on the package. Tricky, right? This is why you need to read your food labels.
The Nutrition Facts Panel
There are some key things to look at in the nutrition facts panel as well. Let’s go over them now.
Pay close attention to the serving size listed on your food labels. This can give you clues into any deceptive labelling practices.
They can call a food “fat-free” if it contains less than a half a gram of fat per serving. So, food manufacturers will often reduce the serving size on this label to ensure that their product will meet the criteria for “fat-free”. Ever notice how small the serving size is on cooking spray? Usually a fraction of a second of spraying. They know full well that most consumers will spray their pan for longer than that, but they also know that consumers will likely choose the “fat-free” product. Don’t be fooled by this ridiculous tactic. Cooking spray is just fat in a can, there’s no way it can be fat-free, no matter what the label says.
Often, food manufacturers will divide a package into unrealistically small servings in order to make the nutrition facts panel seem better. So have a look at the serving size and keep this in mind. Will the listed serving size reflect how much you would eat of that item in a meal? Or would you be eating 2 or more servings?
Fats are important for good health, however, not all fats are created equal. Saturated fats have been linked to increased risk of cardiovascular disease and more. As such, government nutrition recommendations in Canada urge people to reduce their saturated fat intake, instead aiming for unsaturated fats.
This is pretty easy on a plant-based diet, as most saturated fat comes from animal products. There are few plant products with high saturated fat content. Those include coconut, some plant-based oils and some plant-based processed or packaged foods.
A WFPB diet is one that promotes lower fat intake. It’s suggested to choose food products that have less than 10-15% calories from fat. This is easy to do while eating whole foods, it’s the packaged foods you want to watch out for.
Depending on where you live, your nutrition facts panel may list calories from fat. If not, you can calculate it pretty easily. You just need to remember that each gram of fat is 9 calories. So, multiply the total fat grams in your product by 9. This will give you calories from fat. Then, to calculate the percentage of calories from fat, divide the calories from fat, by the total calories, and multiply the answer by 100.
Food item contains – 120 calories per serving, total fat per serving is 6 grams.
6 grams x 9 calories = 54 calories from fat.
54 calories divided by 120 calories = 0.45
0.45 x 100 = 45%
This item is 45% calories from fat, and probably not the best choice.
In general, you want the fats in your diet to come from whole plant foods as often as possible. So, choose things like nuts, seeds, nut butter or avocado over oils and margarine spreads.
Many people who support a meat-centric diet, love to remind us that we need cholesterol. This is true, as cholesterol is used in the formation of cell membranes and certain hormones. What they fail to tell you is that your body produces all the cholesterol you need, in the liver. So, the dietary requirement for cholesterol is exactly 0 mg. Your liver has you covered, my friend.
It’s also important to note that dietary cholesterol only comes from animal products. Plants do not contain it. So, if you are looking at an item that contains cholesterol, there’s going to be an animal product in the ingredient list that you may have missed.
We all know by now that overdoing it on sodium is bad for our health. Excess sodium intake is linked to increased risks for high blood pressure, stroke, heart failure and more. If you’re eating whole, natural foods, they don’t contain much sodium. It’s really the packaged foods you need to watch out for.
Looking at your nutrition facts panel, aim for foods where the amount of sodium per serving is less than the number of calories per serving. In the case of our example food above, it had 120 calories per serving, so we’d want to see the sodium no higher than 120mg per serving.
You can be more lenient on condiments since you’ll only be using small amounts, so it won’t make up a huge portion of your meal.
Fibre is something that most people don’t get enough of in their diet. This is a problem since high fibre intake is very protective to our health in a number of ways. Soluble fibre (found in things like oats, barley and legumes) helps to lower cholesterol levels in the blood. While insoluble fibre (roughage found in vegetables and whole grains) helps to keep waste moving through the digestive system and out of your body.
Fibre is pretty easy to get on a WFPB diet, so long as you’re eating unrefined carbs and not eating a lot of processed foods.
A good rule of thumb for choosing grain products like bread and wraps is to look at the grams of fibre in relation to the total carbohydrates in a serving. Ideally, you want the fibre to be at least 1/5 of the total carbohydrate amount.
A quick calculation is to take your grams of fibre and multiply it by 5. You’ll want the total carbs to be equal or less than the amount you get.
Your bread contains 5 grams of fibre per serving and 23 grams of total carbohydrate.
5 grams x 5 = 25
Total carbs per serving are 23 grams, which is less than 25, so this is a great grain choice.
This may seem like a pain to do, but all it takes is one visit. You can look at a few brands, find the ones that meet the criteria and then you know which ones to choose on subsequent visits.
The Bottom Line
Unfortunately, food manufacturers today don’t always have our health in mind. It’s up to the consumer to be savvy enough to recognize whether or not a packaged food is healthy. Now you should have a good idea of what to look for when looking at a product. It may seem overwhelming at first, but remember, if you’re focusing on whole foods, you won’t be buying nearly as many packaged foods that require the extra scrutiny. Most whole foods will have no labels or very straightforward ones with only an ingredient or two. That’s the goal, the fewer ingredients the better.
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