How to Read Food Labels Without Feeling Overwhelmed
I wanted to create today’s post as there is often confusion when it comes to reading food labels. Ideally, you won’t have to worry about reading many food labels since fresh produce doesn’t come with them.
However, I know the reality for most of us is that we do have some packaged food in our lives. Packaged foods I personally buy include tempeh, kale chips (especially when traveling), coconut milk and gluten-free crackers, wraps and breads. There are some not-so-bad foods you can enjoy occasionally without doing harm to your body, and these are especially helpful during your transition period to a cleaner diet…and to stock in general in your kitchen to help keep you on track.
Here are some key factors to be aware of when reading a label…
Skip the Calorie Counts
Calories are certainly not the best indicator of nutrition or beauty goals long-term. One hundred calories from sugar are nowhere near the same as 100 calories from broccoli. Similarly, a 500-calorie meal from a drive-thru may still leave you lethargic on the brink of malnutrition while a 500-calorie meal of whole foods will leave you feeling satisfied, comfortable, and with more energy than you had before you ate it (that’s what food should do!).
Calories affect the body differently depending on where they come from, and how different foods digest and the complete nutritional package of each food is what we need to be focusing on. Some boost your Beauty Energy because your body knows exactly what to do with them and can use them to its advantage; others drain your Beauty Energy instead because your body has to use more resources to digest them.
Some people latch on to the idea of keeping track of their calories as a way to lose or maintain their weight, but remember that calorie count doesn’t mean much at all when your main goal is to detox and become healthier overall.
There are a lot of 100-calorie junk foods out there. Why not just have a piece of label-free fruit instead? The fiber will keep you full longer than the low-calorie junk food on the shelves. Even with packaged foods, if the ingredients are good, the calorie count matters less.
The Beauty Detox Lifestyle saves you from the stress of calorie-counting. You’ll find you don’t even need those charts to plan your calories for the day as a safety net once you start eating a diet filled with whole foods and very, very few foods that even come with labels and calorie amounts. It’s liberating!
If the Individual Ingredients Aren’t Things You’d Use on Your Own with More Time, Skip It
The true worth of a food lies in its ingredients list. That is what you want to look at—not calories, percentages, fat grams, or grams of protein. If you had more time or the equipment to prepare the type of food you’re considering, would you purchase the ingredients on the label and use them yourself in your kitchen, or are there things on there you’d never consider using?
I would specifically mention, are the oils in those foods (often a variety of vegetable oils, which can go rancid very easily) ones you would cook with yourself or willingly put in your body?
If You Can’t Pronounce It, You Probably Shouldn’t Eat It
True, there are some things that are tricky to pronounce (the first time you heard of quinoa did you pronounce it Quin-o-ah instead of Keen-wah 🙂 ?) that are fine to eat. Some are even good for you, but as a general rule, if you flip over a potential snack to check out its label and it’s loaded with ingredients you don’t recognize and can’t even begin to pronounce, you’d be safer just to return it to the shelf and keep looking for something else (ideally in the produce aisle!).
Health Claims? Those Foods Probably Aren’t Actually Healthy
Sometimes you don’t even have to get to the official label to know a product is no good. Does it say it’s fat-free on the front? There’s probably an extra dose of sugar to make up for it.
Sugar-free? An extra shot of chemicals. If a package is trying to suck you in with health claims before you even have a chance to turn it over to read the label, there’s a good chance that food isn’t exactly healthy anyway.
There are exceptions, like in the case of (some!) gluten-free products. Some of those crackers, for example, may say they’re gluten-free on the front without being paired with a nightmarish ingredients list on the side or back. Be wary of health claims and proceed to the ingredients list with caution.
6 Common Ingredients to Avoid
Oils (especially hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated):
Oils, even the healthy ones, aren’t readily available in nature and are not whole foods, so I like to say to have as little of those as possible, since they can really pile up, amount-wise, and congest the body. A little olive oil or coconut oil is okay, but try to source your fat more from whole foods like avocados, seeds (like tahini) and some nuts. What you really want to be especially careful of in processed foods, however, are hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oils, which show up on labels quite often. These extend the shelf-life of certain products, but the process of adding hydrogen to the vegetable oils creates trans fatty acids and makes these products dangerous to consume (trans fatty acids contribute to higher LDL “bad” cholesterol and may lower HDL “good” cholesterol levels, and should really never be eaten).
Soy or whey protein isolate:
These are really common in a lot of so-called health foods, like protein bars and powders, but they sometimes show up in places you wouldn’t even expect to see them. Soy is one of the most allergenic and highly contaminated (with pesticides) foods in the country and could cause trouble with digestion, depress thyroid function, and disrupt the endocrine system. Whey is a protein from milk and highly acidic in the body. There are better protein powder sources, such as from hemp seeds and other sprouted plants.
High fructose corn syrup:
You’re probably well aware of this one, as it’s in such a high percentage of pre-packaged, processed foods and a well-known villain of the dietary world. You’ll find it in everything from bread to soda, and it’s been strongly linked to obesity.
Aspartame (Equal and NutraSweet), sucralose (Splenda), and saccharin (Sweet ‘N Low) are often used in place of sugar to cut calorie counts and allow manufacturers to slap a “sugar-free!” claim on their product. Despite any weight loss claims (wrongly) associated with them, artificial sweeteners have been linked to weight gain, among other issues, like the death of nerve cells and increased acidity in the body.
These are included to make certain food products more visually appealing. Artificial colors have been linked to everything from tumors to hyperactivity in children, and there’s really no good reason to consume them. You’ll see them listed as a color and a number, like Red 40, Yellow 5, etc.
Artificial and natural flavors:
These won’t always be spelled out in specifics for you, but you should skip foods that list “artificial flavors” or “natural flavors” in the ingredients list. Artificial flavorings can be any number of chemical concoctions, but “natural” sounds innocent enough, right? In reality, it’s not. It’s too vague. There are plenty of natural flavors out there you would be less than thrilled to know you’re consuming, and they can hide under that cloak.
For example, castoreum, a secretion from beavers’ anal glands, is sometimes used as a food additive and falls into that “natural flavors” category. Natural flavoring can also include other animal products, GMO crops, and more, some of which you may even be sensitive to.
You won’t remember the details behind all of the ingredients overnight, and there are a lot of things the food industry doesn’t want you to know about what’s really in your food. What you can do is look for foods that have the most recognizable ingredients, and ingredients you know are safe to eat.
Start by looking for ingredients lists that are free of artificial colors, flavors, and sweeteners. Look for the words “soy” or “whey.” Check for oils- and see how they are listed up on the ingredient list. You don’t have to always be “perfect”, but it’s better to avoid products with those ingredients, and/or high amounts of oil.
It takes time to transition into understanding all the information I shared above, especially if the Beauty Detox Lifestyle is new to you. Take your time and follow the program at your own pace. See what feels good in your body, and build your personal stocklist of products that feel good in your body and that you love. You are unique and what works best for you is unique.
I am always here supporting you here on the blog and in my social communities!