Next time you walk into the grocery store, stop for a second and just gaze at the vast ocean of aisles of processed, packaged and prepared foods. The whole foods in the store are definitely and obviously in the minority now. Walk past the inner aisles and you’ll feel like you’re traipsing through a carnival (all that’s missing is the clown music!).
Some packages have garish colors with cute little cartoon characters that you know your kids will love. And others feature big bold claims with images of nature or whole foods (that they claim are somewhere in there!), about how they’re supposed to be good for your heart or your head, or how they’re made with one healthy ingredient or another. It’s just overwhelming is it not?
I know you do your best to choose fresh foods whenever possible, but most likely some of the things you need to buy come in a jar, can, bottle or carton and you have to brave the packaged food aisles to find them.
How on earth are you supposed to know what’s good and what’s bad just by looking at a box? Well, first — if you’ve been in our community for a while (and if you are new then Welcome!), then you probably know the best strategy is to shop on the outer edges of the supermarket (where all the fruits and veggies are!) — as most of the processed and less healthy foods are in the middle aisles.
BUT there are some good things in the middle, especially if you’re at a healthier type of market, and the way you can get better at choosing is by improving your ability to read the Nutrition Facts labels.
This probably doesn’t sound easy. How big is a serving? How much am I going to eat? It’s got how many calories? And what are those ingredients? Ugh… help me!!!
Good News — New Labels May Be On the Way!
The food labels that you currently see may be undergoing a bit of a makeover in the future.
The new labels make it easier to understand the serving size and help you know how many calories you’re going to be consuming (though I don’t encourage obsessing over calories, especially when you’re eating whole foods which would have no label at all!), plus there are a few additional changes. I’ll explain more about these changes later on.
But first, here’s a little backstory.
The FDA requires that all packaged foods carry labels containing information about the nutritional content of that food and a list of ingredients. Things like calorie counts, fats, carbohydrates and proteins, plus sodium, fiber and a few essential vitamins and minerals need to be included.
The labels are by no way complete, and I believe, actually encourage people to just focus on the numbers on the label as the most important thing. But they are not…at least not individually.
What’s most important is the sum total of what you are eating- how close to a whole food it is, how easily it digests, etc. But the labels are a helpful basic measure for packaged foods and do create awareness if something has a crazy amount of added sugar for instance, and can alert big red flags.
The current labels have stayed about the same for about 20 years, with only minor changes — like when the FDA required food manufacturers to list the amount of trans-fat. That was a good change.
When the FDA required companies to list that trans-fat, a lot of it disappeared and food manufacturers looked for ways to make their foods trans-fat free.
The FDA is hoping the new changes will be just as valuable for consumers as adding the trans-fat information.
So What’s New?
The Nutrition Facts labels have been criticized for being difficult to understand, so the FDA wants to change that. The proposed new labels make it easier to find the calorie counts and decipher the serving sizes, plus they’ve picked out a couple of the nutrients that are important for heart health and for avoiding obesity. Here’s the gist:
a change in format
added sugars must be listed
serving sizes are evolving
potassium and vitamin D are coming on board —say goodbye to vitamins A and C
daily values are being revised
‘calories from fat’ is going away
Now I’m going to dive into the details of these changes and explain how they can help YOU with smarter shopping choices.
1. The New Format:
At first glance, the changes don’t look all that drastic — it’s still black and white and it retains that familiar shape. Blah blah blah.
But what’s this? A bigger bolder font for ‘Calories’ and it clearly states how many servings are in the package.
This is a great change. My biggest complaint about the current food labels is that it’s hard to tell how many servings are in one container. And that’s key because every other piece of information is only valuable if you know how much of the food you’re eating.
For an example, just look at the current labels on bottled beverages. Whether you’re looking at a soft drink or an iced tea or even some of the bottled fruit and vegetable smoothies like the Naked brand, they almost all claim to have 2 or even 2 1/2 servings for bottle. That means if you drank the whole thing, you gulped down twice as many calories as you thought — and twice as much of everything else.
Of course, we’ve said many times that calories aren’t everything — not by a long-shot — but they can be helpful at times, especially if you’re getting a lot of calories from a certain source without realizing it.
2. Added Sugars:
Here’s another good change, especially if you’re still learning how to be a smart shopper.
The current Nutrition Facts labels require the manufacturer to list the total grams of carbohydrates, sugar and fiber. But they don’t need to differentiate between natural sugar and added sugars, and added sugar is one thing none of us need.
Added sugars are used as ingredients and added to foods during the manufacturing process. If you look at the ingredients list that accompanies the food labels.
They’re everywhere — not only in the sweet treats you expect to have sugar, but they’re also found in foods that aren’t sweet — like salad dressings and ketchup. If you see any of these, you’re looking at added sugar.
confectioner’s powdered sugar
corn syrup solids
high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS)
white granulated sugar
The problem with added sugars is that they add calories, but nothing else, so we call them ‘empty calories.’
Natural sugars — like what’s in fresh fruits and vegetables — have calories too, but since they’re still in the wholesome food where they belong, they’re accompanied by fiber, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants.
So how do I use this information?
Added sugar intake in this country is way too high. The FDA believes alerting consumers to the amount of added sugar in packaged foods will help us all know how much extra sugar in in our foods.
So, look at the new labels when you shop. Even organic foods or GMO-free foods might contain added sugars — just because the added sugars are organic doesn’t make them healthy. If you want to get a little shock try looking at the sugar in organic cereals (which usually contain gluten anyways).
3. Realistic Serving Sizes
People eat bigger portions now than 20 years ago when the labels were new — that’s just a sad fact. Here in Korea, where I’m writing this from, I rarely see heavy people. While they are definitely eating more meat than salads, their portion sizes are pretty small.
As far as the label, the new serving sizes are being updated to match what people really eat, not what they should eat. Sounds a bit like a double-edged sword. We need to know that the nutrition information is accurate for the amount of food we’re eating, but at the same time, it feels like it condones eating the bigger portions.
Some food labels will have two columns — one side will have nutrition information for one serving of the product and the other side will provide that information for the whole package.
All in all, updating the serving size is a good change, but you still need to know what serving sizes are best for you.
Make sure you look carefully at the serving sizes and take care not to over or underestimate the amount you’re eating or drinking. The sizes should be listed in typical kitchen measurements like cups, tablespoons and teaspoons.
Have a tough time estimating what you eat? Then go grab your measuring cups and spoons and use them to serve your foods until you get the hang of it. Or (or!) try making some beautifying Beauty Detox recipes and that will have you becoming more comfortable with food measurements!
4. Shuffling the Vitamins and Minerals:
Potassium and vitamin D content will be added to the new labels.
Potassium is important for normal healthy blood pressure. So many processed foods contain large amount of sodium, which is associated with some people having higher blood pressure. Potassium does the opposite, and eating potassium-rich foods can help regulate blood pressure.
By the way, you know all those fruits and vegetables you eat? They’re all high in potassium and low in sodium. That’s just one of the many reasons you need to rely on them for most of your healthy diet.
Vitamins are essential for healthy bones because they help you absorb calcium. Most of your vitamin D doesn’t come from the foods you eat — your body makes it when your skin is exposed to the UV rays of the sun.
Sadly, lots of people don’t get enough vitamin D, especially if they don’t go outside much or live too far north to get strong enough sun exposure during the winter months.
Even though most foods don’t contain much vitamin D, some foods are fortified with it, so that will be evident on the new labels. Just remember that adding vitamin D to unhealthy heavily processed junk food doesn’t make it healthy. If foods are “fortified” they are usually stripped of beneficial nutrients and throw a few token ones back in, but are largely junky!!!
Vitamins A and C will no longer be a requirement for the new labels, but food manufacturers can list them if they want. Of course, most processed food is low in these important vitamins anyway.
So what’s high in vitamins A and C? You guessed it — fresh fruits and vegetables. Mmm…mmm! Vitamins have never tasted so yummy as a ripe orange or a pile of blueberries. And no label needed :).
5. Calculating New Daily Values :
Both the current and the new label show the Percent Daily Values, which are a way to help you know how much of each nutrient you’re consuming fits into your overall diet, based on 2,000 calories per day.
But our knowledge of nutrition changes from time to time and the FDA wants to revise how the daily values are calculated for sodium (most people get too much), fiber and vitamin D (and most people get to little of these two).
The most important thing to remember about using the percent daily values is that you probably don’t eat 2,000 calories per day — you may be eating more or less than that — so you need to take that into consideration.
6. No More Calories from Fat:
No, this doesn’t mean that the calories from fat don’t count anymore. They do, but the problem is that the current label is confusing because they don’t break out the calorie counts for proteins and carbohydrates. So the FDA wants to just show the total calorie count per serving.
But the FDA believes that the type of fat we eat is more important than the total amount, so the amounts of saturated and trans fats are staying on the label.
Eating a mostly plant-based diet will provide you with the essential fats you need and help you avoid the bad fats you don’t want, but the fat content of packaged foods can be confusing. You don’t need all the saturated fats that are found in many packaged foods and of course, the trans-fats are just flat out bad for you. Reading the food labels help you with that.
But the new labels still don’t require information on the beneficial fats like monounsaturated fats and omega-3 fatty acids. You’re on your own when it comes to finding these fats. Good sources of monounsaturated fats include items containing olives and avocado, while omega-3s can be found in flax seeds, pumpkin seeds, chia seeds and walnuts.
Don’t Forget About the Ingredients List!
When you think about it, the Nutrition Facts label only tells part of the story. It’s an important story to be sure, but to fully understand what you’re eating, you need to look at the ingredients list.
The healthiest packaged foods have five ingredients or less and they should all be ingredients you know and would use in your own kitchen. Avoid the sugars mentioned earlier, things you can’t pronounce, and keep a sharp eye out for artificial additives and preservatives — these are things you don’t want in your body:
BHA and BHT
hydrolyzed vegetable protein
sodium nitrite and nitrate
Ultimately — Focus on Fresh Foods
I know there are times when you need to pick up something that’s convenient and some packaged foods — like raw nuts and seeds, nut butters and almond milk — are fine things to have in your kitchen.
But, most of the prepackaged processed foods you see just aren’t good for you.
Keep your focus on organically grown fresh fruits and vegetables. They don’t need any food labels because they really don’t contain anything bad — just lots of vitamins, minerals, fiber, antioxidants and the right amounts of carbohydrates and proteins and the best balance of essential fats.
And — they taste so much better.
How Do You Feel About the New Food Labels?
Tell me what you think of the new food labels — are they good or do they just promote making and buying more junk foods? Do you agree with the changes or do we need something completely different?
I’d love to hear your thoughts!
In love and health,
I have been seeing coconut sugar more and more and was wondering if that is a sweetner alternative you would use. Please provide your thoughts.
I too have been seeing coconut sugar promoted a lot. A few years ago I did a lot of experimenting with it. Usually I use erythritol and stevia for dry sweetener needs. Coconut nectar is a 1-1 ratio I believe, as far as using in recipes.
It does contain some minerals like iron and zinc, as well as the fiber inulin. However, a lot of coconut sugar companies may mix table sugar in with the coconut sugar (according to what I’ve heard from some people in the industry), and the coconut sugar is still, well, sugar. It is still around 70% or more sucrose, half of which is fructose. So it may be better than regular old white refined sugar, but it should still be used sparingly. Xx Kimberly
Great breakdown of the nutrition label proposal. I would like to add 2 things.
First, the proposal is in comment period until June 2, 2014, and you and your readers can weigh in here: http://www.fda.gov/Food/GuidanceRegulation/GuidanceDocumentsRegulatoryInformation/LabelingNutrition/ucm385663.htm
Second, I would just like to highlight that under the new proposal, labels for diet soda would remain unchanged because diet soda has 0 calories and no added sugars. So, like you say – attention to the ingredient list is especially important.
Miss your NYSC class in NYC!
Thanks for this info. I’ve put many an item back on the shelf after reading the label. But sometimes eating unhealthy and processed food come down to economics. If you only have a limited amount of money to spend on food, you have to make it last. Now that the weather is breaking in my neck of the woods, I’m going to make shopping at farmer’s market my goal for this summer.
I think they just promote buying more junk food, because sugar makes you more fat than fat it’s self. And even the healthy almond, and flaxseed milks, contain added sugar, around 10 to 16 grams of it. So, now I stopped drinking them, and I eat the whole seeds. But, I still have trouble letting go of raw sugar in my coffe every morning. But sugar makes you hella fat dude! The more I stay away from sugar, the more belly fat I lose… Plain and simple. Plus, sugar is the most profitable ingredient in America, and its the most addictive. It’s more addicting than cocaine, and it’s in everything… Now that’s cray!
Your books changed my lifestyle. Because of you I started eating much more healthy, and your words about taking care of your insides inspired me to give up my 8 years of smoking. I just moved to South Korea about a month ago, and since you’re here I was wondering if you would be willing to have a meet up? I can’t thank you enough for what you’ve done to me and I would love to talk nutrition over lunch or coffee!
Hi Maria! It is amazing about your changing your lifestyle. Thank you for sharing! I am thrilled to hear it. Please keep it up, keep taking care of yourself. The body does heal itself. If you can get into an infrared sauna (there are many places that offer them in Seoul), it would be a great way to detox some of the toxins from the years of smoking.
I am running around a lot in South Korea, but if there is an event or a way to meet I will announce it here and you will see it! Take care and stay connected. Lots of love, Kimberly
This is a good article. I love your list of artificial additives and preservatives, but there are so many other bad things that are put in our food. Especially in the packed gluten free foods. Really wish that someone could provide a bad list. I have heard if you can’t pronounce it don’t eat it. Thanks again for your articles…you always pick great topics to keep me thinking.