Food Labels 101 from Jeremy Likness - author of Become The Journey - A Transformation
Staff Writer for Tom Venuto's Fitness
It is important that you know how
to shop for quality foods. This article explains how to maximize your trips to
the grocery store by revealing exactly how to read labels and find healthy
foods. It is not very complicated, but a little knowledge can go a long ways
when it comes to healthy shopping.
Here Are A
Few General Guidelines For Looking At Food Labels:
It is the ingredients and the
nutrition facts that are important - one without the other doesn't tell the
Ingredients list are listing in
descending order of predominance. This means that the first ingredient is the
most prevalent in the product, while the last ingredient has the least amount
in the product.
In general, you'll want sugars and
salts to be listed last in the ingredients list
If you are looking for a whole fat
food, remember that the labels list fats in grams. The percentage listed next
to the fats is percentage of daily intake, not percentage of fat calories in
the product. You need to look at the top of the label, "calories of fat", and
divide that by total calories to figure out the percentage. You can estimate
this - if the fat calories are around ½ of the total calories, then the
fat calories are about 50%.
When looking for carbohydrate
products, try to choose products that are the least amount processed. Here are
a few tips:
Breads should have the words
"whole" or "stone ground" first on the ingredients list. Often, you might see
"unbleached enriched flour, whole wheat..." which is not the bread you are
looking for - this is processed bread with some whole grains added for color.
The first ingredient should be whole grains.
A quality carbohydrate should have
fiber and sugar. Try to avoid carbohydrates with zero fiber.
Carbohydrates that are nothing but
fiber will also not provide optimal nourishment- a combination of both is good.
I typically look for at least 1/6 of the total carbohydrate count as fiber - so
something with 20 grams of carbohydrate would have around 3 - 4 grams of
It is your decision whether or not
you wish to consume highly processed foods. I choose to look for whole, natural
foods. If there is too much Latin on the label - i.e. Ingredients I can't
pronounce or don't recognize, I leave it on the shelf!
Canned goods, frozen dinners, and
other pre-packaged items are typically very high in sodium. You are better off
purchasing the whole, individual ingredients and then making your own meals
from recipes. You can store these in containers and freeze them for later.
Foods are often "grouped" on
ingredients lists to present the items in a specific way. Sometimes this is for
legitimate reasons, and sometimes it can be downright tricky. Most people
understand that ingredients should be listed in descending order of quantity -
in other words, the ingredient that occurs the most in the product should also
be listed first.
Therefore, someone looking for a
protein bar will be happy to pick up something that reads:
Super-di-awesome Protein blend
(hydrolyzed cow toes, whey), maltodextrin
The label will list protein, and
Of course, there is more going on
here. That special protein blend - what is it, really? Let's say our
ingredients list had 10 grams of whey, 11 grams of cow toes (ew!) and 12 grams
of maltodextrin. That list would need to be in descending order of quantity, or
"maltodextrin, hydrolyzed cow toes, whey."
Anyone familiar with sugars knows
that while maltodextrin doesn't affect the sugar count, it is very high
glycemic and therefore not something you would want to be the primary
ingredient (unless this was a post-workout shake). So looking at this label,
the average consumer would say to themselves, "High in sugar, tons of poor
protein, and only a little whey."
So what to do? Simple. The company
groups the cow toes and whey together. This is the "super-di-awesome protein
blend." Because the sum of the ingredients is 10 + 11 = 21, this new "blend"
can be listed before the maltodextrin, with the components of the blend listed
Now, it appears to the
unsuspecting consumer that there is actually more whey in the product than
maltodextrin (sugar). But we know there is less! The whey makes its way (pardon
the pun) to the front of the list through the use of the blend. Therefore, when
you are checking out labels, make sure you are aware of how this grouping
Sometimes label contain special
statements. It is important to understand exactly what these mean.
When a label states, "Not a
significant source of calories from fat," it must have less than 0.5 grams
of fat per serving. Be cautious of deli meats that are sliced so thin that they
may have less than ½ gram of fat per serving, but still contain a
significant percentage of calories from fat.
"Not a significant source of
sugars" means that the sugar count on the label is less than one gram.
Don't take this statement for granted. Some ingredients, such as maltodextrin,
are not technically considered to be sugars, but have the same effect as
sugars. This is why the ingredients list and the nutrition facts are important
when taken together.
some definitions for other special statements:
No Fat Or
Fat Free - Contains less than a 1/2 gram of fat per serving. Lower Or
Reduced Fat - Contains less the fat or calories of the original version or a
Low Fat - Contains less
than 3 grams of fat per serving.
Lite - Contains 1/3 the
calories or 1/2 the fat per serving of the original version or a similar
Low Calories - Contains 1/3
the calories of the original version or a similar product.
No Calorie Or Calorie Free
- Contains less than 5 calories per serving.
Sugar Free - Contains less
than 1/2 gram of sugar per serving.
No Preservatives - Contains
no preservatives (chemical or natural).
No Preservatives Added -
Contains no added chemicals to preserve the product. Some of these products may
contain natural preservatives.
Low Sodium - Contains less
than 140 milligrams of sodium per serving.
No Salt Or Salt Free -
Contains less than 5 milligrams of sodium per serving.
Baked Not Fried - Used
mostly for potato chips, crackers or corn chips, this label means the product
is usually sprayed with a light oil then baked in an over instead of fried in
by Any Name
Understand how to locate sugars in
your foods. I am not against sugars, as you read in previous chapters, but it
is important to know how to find these if they do exist. Here are some common
names for sugars. Be cautious with foods where these appear higher in the
ingredients list, as the foods may contain too much sugar and create
undesirable spikes in your blood sugar:
Jus de canne
If you are avoiding dairy, the
following elements on an ingredients list are dairy or dairy derivatives:
There seems to be a lot of fuss
over having natural versus artificial flavorings. It seems that many products
are proud to brag "natural flavors" on their ingredients, while consumers are
quick to erect a stake and start building a pile of sticks to burn anything
that remotely mentions something as "artificial." The truth about these
ingredients, however, is not what you think! So what exactly is the difference
between natural and artificial flavors?
Natural and artificial flavors are
defined by the Code of Federal Regulations. This means there are specific laws
regarding which of these terms can be used on an ingredients list.
In order to be considered
"natural" an ingredient must adhere to the standard that:
"a natural flavor is the essential
oil, oleoresin, essence or extractive, protein hydrolysate, distillate, or any
product of roasting, heating or enzymolysis, which contains the flavoring
constituents derived from a spice, fruit or fruit juice, vegetable or vegetable
juice, edible yeast, herb, bark, bud, root, leaf or similar plant material,
meat, seafood, poultry, eggs, dairy products, or fermentation products thereof,
whose significant function in food is flavoring rather than nutritional."
Anything that does not follow this
definition is considered artificial. Quite a mouthful, no?
There is actually a trained
professional, known as a "flavorist," who creates these ingredients. What may
surprise you is that both natural and artificial flavors are made in a
laboratory! That's right - the flavorist actually uses the same chemicals to
make natural or artificial flavors.
The difference is that the
chemicals are either naturally derived or synthetically created. This is not
like the difference between wool and nylon, which are both used for making
clothes but are different substances.
At a molecular level, natural and
artificial flavors appear to be the same. In fact, there is an argument that
artificial flavors are safer. This is because they can be created in their pure
form. For natural flavors, the source product (for example, an apple) must be
dissolved and filtered, even treated with other chemicals, in order to yield
the chemicals for the flavoring. This creates a greater potential for
impurities to exist in the flavoring.
It is therefore wise to note that
natural and artificial flavorings are both chemical additives used to enhance
flavor. If a product indicates that it contains a natural flavor, that does not
mean the vendor ground their apples to flavor the product - it means they
purchased or extracted a specific set of chemicals and artificially added these
to the food to alter the taste.
If you are not concerned with
flavorings, then pay less attention to whether the source is natural or
artificial, and more attention to the position in the ingredients list. If you
want a natural food in the sense that it is something you could produce in your
own kitchen, ditch the packages that have any added flavoring other than
There are certain red flags to
look for in an ingredients list. This is by no means a comprehensive list, but
a recommendation based on my own experience with purchasing quality foods. When
looking at an ingredients list, examine the beginning (initial ingredients),
the middle, and the end of the list.
Here Is My List Of Red
Sugar anywhere but the end. Middle
is fine if there is also substantial fiber. Of course, these rules may change
for a post-workout shake.
Salt anywhere but the end of the
list. Salt is not bad (see my "The Skinny on Salt" article) but should be used
Any ingredient that I can't
pronounce or must understand Latin in order to decipher - again, these aren't
necessarily bad I just ask myself do they do something good for me?
Excess vitamins and minerals - I'd
rather get these from whole foods and a well-designed multivitamin than as a
spray or additive in my food.
Enriched anything. This has to be
the biggest joke in the food industry. Enriched means the food was stripped of
vital nutrients, and then a half-baked attempt at stuffing some more back in
Fortified. Fortified with what?
Control your vitamin and mineral intake through engineered supplements and
whole foods - not through additives to existing foods where you do not have
control over the quality or quantity.
Any food where the serving size
provides over 20 grams of carbohydrate but less than 2 grams of fiber.
A protein where the fat calories
are half of or more than the total calories (unless, of course, you are looking
at a bottle of olive oil).
The existence of partially
hydrogenated oils anywhere in the ingredients list (also known as trans-fatty
acids). I also tend to avoid hydrogenated oils as well (as opposed to partially
hydrogenated) but don't mind them if they are at the end of the ingredients
list. Also, if a product declares that it is free of trans fatty acids, then it
should be fine despite the presence of hydrogenated oils in the ingredients
Educate yourself regarding foods
will help you tremendously in your journey to fitness. As with all things,
practice moderation. For example, my weakness is fried corn chips.
I still consume these, in
moderation, by keeping them within my calorie budget and avoiding multiple
servings per day or consuming them daily. When I have a strong craving for
chips, I will purchase the baked variety (usually spiced with lemon and chili
pepper) as a compromise.
I want to leave you with one final
piece of advice that I learned from many other sources. It is called "shopping
at the periphery."
If you notice, most stores put the
processed, packaged, and canned goods in the middle of the store. The fresh
produce, eggs, dairy, meats, and other whole items are around the perimeter of
the store. As long as you focus the majority of your shopping on this
perimeter, you will be doing very well at picking up healthy, wholesome foods.
This article was an excerpt
Become The Journey - A Transformation Guide
Jeremy Likness is
a Certified Fitness Trainer and a Specialist in Performance Nutrition. He is
the CEO of Natural Physiques(tm), a Division of Golden Summit, Inc.
NaturalPhysiques.com, is the premier resource for articles relating to the
mind, body, and spiritual aspect of physique transformation. After Jeremy and
his wife lost over 100 pounds of fat combined, Jeremy wrote an incredible
manual for anyone interested in taking control of their life: "Become the
Journey: A Transformation Guide." For more information about this unique guide
that focuses on the personal development aspect of healthy living, click on
Become The Journey - A Transformation