Have you ever found yourself standing in the grocery store, reading food labels, and feeling overwhelmed by the long list of ingredients you can barely pronounce? You're not alone. Learning how to read food labels can be confusing and time-consuming, but it is an essential part of maintaining a healthy lifestyle.
One of the best rules of thumb is to choose foods with only a few ingredients that are made of whole foods. These foods tend to be less processed and more natural. However, even when a food has a short list of ingredients, it's essential to know what they mean for your health. It goes without saying that ideally we should always to to opt for whole foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean proteins. When you choose whole foods, you know exactly what you’re getting and you can be sure that you’re fuelling your body with the nutrients it needs.
Below we delve into some other essential red flags to look out for when reading food ingredients lists.
Artificial flavors are often chemically synthesized compounds that mimic natural flavors, lacking the complexity and nutritional benefits of real food. These additives can lead to a disconnection between taste and actual nutritional value, potentially encouraging unhealthy eating habits. Moreover, artificial flavors have been linked to adverse health effects, including allergies, migraines, and digestive issues in some individuals. By opting for natural and whole foods, we can enjoy the true essence of flavours while nourishing our bodies. Look out for things like "flavour enhancer" on the label.
Most artificially colored foods are colored with synthetic chemicals —called dyes —that do not occur in nature. Look out for artificial colours, which can often appear on an ingredients list as the number E and a number range between 100 and 199. These ingredients can be found in many processed foods and are often used to make them look more appealing. However, many artificial colours are known to be linked to health problems, such as hyperactivity in children. Because food dyes are used almost solely in foods of low nutritional value (candy, soft drinks, gelatin desserts, etc.), a good rule of thumb is simply avoid all dyed foods - especially those aimed at children.
Try to avoid trans fats where possible as these are the most unhealthy fats you can consume. Partially hydrogenated oils, which contain trans fats, are often used to improve the texture and shelf life of processed foods. Trans fats are notorious for their detrimental impact on heart health, raising LDL (bad) cholesterol levels and increasing the risk of cardiovascular diseases. To safeguard your well-being, be on the lookout for this red flag and choose products with zero trans fats or those that use healthier alternatives like olive oil or avocado oil. PS. Most food facilities cook and fry with partially hydrogenated oils, so be savvy with your ordering.
Added or Hidden Sugars
When it comes to sweeteners, both natural and artificial, it's important to be mindful of the type and amount you consume. Artificial sweeteners, such as aspartame and sucralose, are often used in diet foods and drinks as a sugar substitute. However, these sweeteners have been linked to health problems like headaches and digestive issues. Natural sweeteners like honey and maple syrup can be a healthier alternative, but it's still important to consume them in moderation. Beware of hidden sugars, many packaged foods contain hidden sugars, even if they don’t taste sweet. Look for words like “high fructose corn syrup,” “cane sugar,” and “dextrose” (or any other word ending in "-ose" which generally indicates the inclusion of sugar) on the ingredients list. If sugar or artificial sweeteners are one of the first few ingredients, it’s best to avoid the product altogether.
Certain food preservatives have been identified as particularly detrimental to our health. One of the worst offenders is sodium nitrite, commonly used in processed meats like sausages and deli meats. Another concerning preservative is BHA (butylated hydroxyanisole) and its cousin BHT (butylated hydroxytoluene), commonly found in snacks, cereals, and processed foods. These additives have been associated with various health concerns, including allergic reactions, hormonal disruptions, and potential carcinogenic properties.
A final word...
It's also worth mentioning that natural flavours can be problematic, as they can be a cocktail of different substances. For example, natural vanilla flavour can contain hundreds of different compounds. Here is a great article about how little difference there can sometimes be between artificial and natural flavouring. While they may not be harmful, it's important to be aware of what you're consuming and how it may affect your body.
Reading food labels can be overwhelming, but mastering the skill of deciphering food ingredient lists empowers you to make informed choices and prioritize your health and well-being. By choosing foods with only a few ingredients, being mindful of artificial flavours, colours, sweeteners, and preservatives, and opting for natural alternatives, you can make informed choices about what you put in your body. Remember, the best way to ensure your food is healthy is to choose whole, unprocessed foods as much as possible.