Depending on the product, some labels can feel a little overwhelming. And many of us don’t have the luxury of time to spend at the grocery store, reading every detail on each product before tossing it into our carts. But if you know what you’re looking for, it feels much less like a hassle and more like a habit. Plus, once there is a reason to avoid a certain additive, you may find yourself unable to not look at every single detail.
While many companies still withhold certain product details from food labels, there are still a few things they must legally share. All you need to know are a few ins-and-outs and you will find confident control over the foods your family consumes.
Be leery of the pretty
A product’s principal display panel (the front panel) is the side that jumps out to you, as you walk down the aisle. Whispering to you (and especially your kids), “Look at me, buy me!” However, be suspicious of those happy cartoon characters and “All Natural” headlines and dig deeper to know what’s beyond them.
The other sneaky panel
The product will also have a panel that looks inviting, easy to read and, at the same time, “smart.” This is another marketing ploy to prevent you from getting the real information. Don’t let the “no preservatives” and bullet points stop you from finding the dirt!
Where’s the REAL information?
The dirty details can be found on the primary information panel, which is just to the right of the principal display panel. This panel will provide the nutritional facts, ingredients, name and contact info of the manufacturer and/or distributor, and the certified organic info.
However, the info can sometimes be oddly placed on packaging. A great example are meal replacement bars that often shrink their nutritional details and squeeze it in between the wrapper fold on the back. Another problem can be when an individual item has been separated from its original packaging, where the nutritional info exists. Don’t be afraid to ask a store associate (if it’s a health food store, they are used to it) if they can provide the info.
Start at the top (or beginning)
Serving size and servings per container are the first thing you read and the size is what determines the calculations of the nutritional content. So, if the calories are 200 for a serving size of a ½ cup and you eat 1 cup, then you consumed 400 calories. Servings per container math tricks are common to make a food or beverage seem lower in calories or fat, at first glance. Don’t be fooled. Do the math!
LESS (or zero) of this:
Saturated fat, Trans fat, cholesterol, sodium and sugars
Fiber and vitamins and minerals
5% and below is low. 20% and above is high
In theory, you will find every ingredient used in the product here, listed in order of the largest to the smallest amount. While some products will be transparent with additives like dyes, artificial flavors, fillers, or high fructose corn syrup, some companies re-name ingredients to hide it or downplay the amount used. For instance, HFCS-90 means 90% High Fructose Corn Syrup. Renaming ingredients is another common math trick that makes the undesirable ingredient appear multiple times, lower in the list, instead of once, at the top of the list.