Learning how to read food labels is one of the most important skills to possess if you are going to eat well. When I first started learning about nutrition many years ago, I was doing triathlons and my primary concern was eating plenty of carbohydrates, particularly complex carbs (or lower glycemic carbs as they are more commonly referred to these days).
Over the years I became more sensitive to the other important ingredients and how to interpret the nutritional fact labels we have on foods here in Canada. I also learned all the tricks the food companies play to get you to buy their products by making you think they are something that they are not. These tricks are not unique to the fast or processed food industries (in fact they are usually pretty honest about the nutritional value of their foods, or lack thereof). The real sneaky tricks are played in the health food business, where people automatically think they are paying a premium for higher grade food which is often not the case.
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Here are some of the most subtle tricks that are prevalent even in the health food industry.
Monkeying Around with Portion Sizes – Some foods that are high in fat and calories downplay this fact by listing nutrition data using a very small portion size. When you glance at the volume of sugar, you see a few of grams and you assume this is fine to eat, but no one eats that portion size. Breads are notorious for this – one slice is considered a serving. No one eats one slice, ever. It takes two slices for a sammy! I have seen this trick on cereals and bars as well.
Deceiving Ingredient Lists – I picked up a bar made by Kashi, which markets itself with the slogan the Seven Grain Company and is a popular brand amongst the granola crowd. A look at the ingredients list shows a lot of grains high on the list, leading you to think it might be a healthy choice but checking the nutrition data you see the bar is actually very high in sugar 25% by weight. How do they do this? Instead of using a bucket of sugar which would show up at the top of the list of ingredients, they put in small amounts of rice syrup, cane juice, molasses, and honey. Sugar is the number one ingredient after starch (which is another type of sugar). This bar is essentially a candy bar, which is fine if that’s what you want, but if you wanted a “healthy bar”, this shouldn’t be on your list.
False Labeling – Closely related to in the deceiving ingredients list are the products with misleading names. For instance the word “natural” on food products means virtually nothing as there are no standards or rules on what this means. Take a look at the ingredients in many foods marked “natural” and you will find that they are over processed and full of non-natural ingredients. When wholesome ingredients are processed often the nutrition they once had are sapped and they can become higher glycemic. Perhaps not what people are looking for when they choose “natural” foods.
Meal Replacements – I saw an ad that claimed a certain Kellogg breakfast cereal, when consumed with milk, constitutes a meal replacement. Riiiiight. What this means is that if you have a few mouth fulls of this sugar and fat laden combo, you would have eaten a ton of high glycemic/simple carbs, probably the same amount of calories as a regular meal and consumed the same amount of chemicals as eating at a fast food joint. What “meal replacement” does not mean is that you obtained proper vitamins, minerals and fiber from toxin free, nutrition dense, whole foods.
Confusing Organic with Healthy Many products are marketed as a healthy choice simply because they are organic. To be fair, an organic food likely contains less toxic ingredients than similar non-organic foods, but simply being organic does not make something healthy and nutritious. It just means there are fewer chemicals in the food. You can make an organic equivalent of Cap’n Crunch by using the right concoction of over-processed ingredients, but it will still be faux nutritious, and won’t be any more or less nutritious than candy. Also, beware for the products that claim to be organic, but are not certified – there is often nothing organic at all about these products.