Monday, October 22, 2012

Understanding Food Labels

It makes me so happy to see fellow grocery-shoppers stop and examine the labels on products before throwing it in their basket. For those of us trying to be healthy, understanding food labels is essential — especially when companies plant land mines on every aisle with buzz words like "All-Natural" or "Grown Locally."

I tried to think of the most commonly-used labels on items I see in stores and share a little insight on what exactly these labels mean. 


There seems to be quite the gluten-free craze going on right now, but just because something is gluten-free does not automatically make it healthy. In fact, "gluten-free" only specifies those products that do not contain gluten, which is the protein found in wheat. Past studies showed that people who have Celiac's disease are bothered by gluten. New studies suggest that there may be people who don't have the disease but have an intolerance to gluten as well. When these studies first came out, many lives were transformed by choosing a gluten-free diet, allowing them to have more energy, lose weight and feel better.

But, that doesn't mean going gluten-free is for everyone. Only about 10 percent of the U.S. population has shown some gluten-sensitivity. No matter if you're allergic or not, when choosing gluten-free products, you must still read the other labels. Consider the fat, calorie and sugar content.

Products I Trust:

  • Better 'N Peanut Butter (low-fat and low in calories too)
  • Rice Chex (my favorite is the cinnamon flavor)
  • Red Mill gluten-free oatmeal, raw oats and cereals


In general, the label "organic" refers to foods that have been grown without pesticides (fruit/veggies) or growth hormones (meats). Organic does not mean healthy. When it comes to weight loss, eating organically doesn't necessarily improve your chances. It's all about calories in being less than calories out. For example, if you eat a giant organic brownie packed with butter and oil, there's no way you could convince me that was a better choice than a FiberOne 90-calorie brownie. However, choosing organic foods and products makes it easier to follow a clean foods lifestyle, keeping your insides and outsides so fresh and so clean, clean.

Products I Trust:

  • Nature's Path organic oatmeal
  • Amy's Organic Chunky Tomato Bisque
  • Organic deli meat by Applegate
  • When I can afford it, I try to buy organic fruit and veggies (especially foods that don't have peeling I remove before eating like apples, salad, berries, etc)

Trans Fat-Free

If there's anything in food you should fear, it's trans fats. Along with saturated fats, trans fatty acids have been linked to heart disease. The biggest problem with trans fats is that it takes very little of them to cause serious health issues.

Studies show we shouldn't even ingest more than 2 grams of trans fats per day! And be careful — just because an item is marked as "trans fat-free," it might not be true. The FDA approves the trans fat-free label on any product that contains 0.5 grams or less in each serving. 

The only sure way to identify trans fats in foods is to read the ingredients list on any product. If you see the word "hydrogenated" anywhere, put that baby back. Hydrogenation refers to the process that the product went through to either gain some shelf life or add flavor. It goes against everything we try to do in "clean eating."

Foods I Do NOT Trust (this way's easier):

  • Any fried foods (unless you do it yourself the healthier way)
  • Stick margarine
  • Microwave popcorn (I know, sad day)

Low-Fat or Fat-Free

For companies to claim their products are any percentage "fat-free," it must first be "low-fat," meaning it can only have 3 grams of fat or less per serving.

Products I Trust:

  • Skinny Cow ice cream treats
  • Cheeses like Kraft cheddar and mozzarella, the store brand cream cheese and cottage cheese, and the Laughing Cow wedges (all good for recipes as well)
  • Campbell's cream of chicken soup comes in 98% fat free (tastes just as good; good in casseroles)
  • Mission flour tortillas (varieties of low-fat, low-carb and fat-free versions)
  • Dannon Light & Fit yogurt (vanilla, blueberry and strawberry)
  • No Pudge fat-free brownie mix (just mix it with yogurt)


Ever wondered why sugar-free foods often still taste sweet, and sometimes are even sweeter than the normal stuff? Usually, they contain alternative sweeteners like Sucralose (Splenda), Erythritol (Nutrasweet/Equal), Stevia or sugar alcohols like Xylitol. Sugar alcohols are technically carbohydrates but are not digestible. They are similar to fiber, which is also non-digestible, meaning your body doesn't convert those calories to energy. That's why you'll often find that fiber-full foods are less in calories too. 
I typically opt for the sugar-free versions of foods, but I always check the ingredient label to find what exactly I'm putting into my body. Which "sugar impostor" am I ingesting? I'll also see if this sugar-free version is packing in more fat to make up for the flavor. Overall, it's important to try to keep both sugar and fat low. If you're sensitive to sugar alcohols or you're trying to avoid artificial sweeteners, be careful about choosing sugar-free stuff.

Products I Trust:

  • Nature's Own sugar-free bread or Sara Lee's 45-calorie bread
  • Hershey's sugar-free chocolate syrup
  • Almond Breeze sugar-free vanilla almond milk
  • Red Diamond sugar-free iced tea
  • Jell-O (any flavor) and instant pudding (white chocolate and vanilla)
  • Ice Breakers Sours (like candy)
Are there other labels that confuse you? Let me know in the comments. :)

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