Let's Talk Labels

If you want to reach the maximum benefits from your food while supporting local producers, farm-to-table eating is the ideal. There's nothing better than consuming produce in the closest form to which it was harvested. With that said, the majority of the year I live in a big city, so I get that for most of us this preference isn't realistic.

For a moment let’s suppose you walk into the grocery store, and you’re on the hunt for a healthy snack. Maybe you want to revamp the contents of your fridge with healthier versions. Perhaps you don’t have time to make something from scratch and need a quick alternative. Sound familiar?

Over the past few years I have come up with a list of tips and tricks, and I’d love to share them with you. The inspiration for this article is to empower you (and reinforce what you already know) in your journeys toward the longest and most health-filled years. By no means is this list comprehensive, but these are the things I find most helpful and relevant. Some I picked up in a plant-based nutrition course a couple years back, but all of them stem from national guidelines and recommendations. See what I did there? Stem?! :) Let's return to the basics, or more appropriately the roots, where farm-to-table truly begins. Initially I envisioned this list being short and sweet, just the way I like my labels. But ultimately it seemed most beneficial to not only include these tricks but also the ‘why’ and science behind them.

1. Always look at the ingredient list

The fewer the better. If you can’t pronounce it don’t put it in your body. Avoid products with preservatives, artificial flavors and food dyes, and steer clear of anything with an exceptionally long shelf life. Think most canned goods and protein bars.

2. Organic vs. Conventional

Buy organic if possible but especially when getting down with the Dirty Dozen. This applies to both fresh produce and packaged goods. Why? It will significantly reduce your total lifetime exposure to pesticides while naturally avoiding GMO foods. Think that washing and peeling your produce is enough? Not so fast. The FDA detected 178 different pesticides on our fruits and veggies, and often these residues were also detected inside the skin.

Tricks to lower exposure when buying organic isn’t an option: the Clean 15 is a great way to save money or navigate around a limited selection. Also, try cooking your conventional produce because this tends to reduce pesticide levels.

3. Sugar

Turns out the ingredient list is written in descending order of weight. The first ingredient makes up the largest concentration of the food, followed by the second and so on. I like to buy packaged products that don’t contain added sugar within the first three ingredients. My favorite alternative sweeteners are dates, organic apple juice, sweet fruits and maple syrup.

Okay, tell me more. Roughly two-thirds of these added sugar calories are actually consumed within the home. I was shocked by this too! Ultimately, a greater percentage of added sugar in your diet means a lower intake of daily micronutrients, increased body weight and a greater risk of tooth decay. What’s so empowering about these findings? Making tiny tweaks to how we stock our homes can drastically improve health by reducing the percentage of refined sugar in our diets.

4. Sodium

Look for a 1:1 ratio of calories to milligrams of sodium per serving or less.

Here’s why this is relevant to you. Sodium levels should fall between 1500-2300 mg per day, but the majority of American adults take in way more than that. To put this in perspective, 1 teaspoon of sodium measures out to about 2200 mg. Without a doubt, elevated sodium levels over extended periods of time increase the risk of high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease and stroke. Thanks, but no thanks.

Next steps beyond the 1:1? Don’t stop adding salt while you’re cooking because what you add yourself is minimal. Purchase less processed food and then add more of your own salt if you feel you need it. Here’s why. According to a cool study, “participants added back less than 20 percent of the sodium removed from the food when allowed unlimited use of salt shakers.” Makes you think, huh?

5. Fat

Gravitate toward products that contain less than or equal to 20 percent of calories from fat per serving. Calculate this by dividing the calories from fat by the total calories in each serving.

Other ways to reduce consumption of bad fats? Minimize saturated fats to 10% of total calories per day and leave trans fat foods on the shelves altogether. The primary source of trans fats are from partially hydrogenated oils (PHOs), so avoiding them might be as simple as double checking the ingredient list.

Why stay trans fat free? They have been proven to raise bad cholesterol and increase the risk of coronary heart disease. Oh and they are also not recognized as safe for human consumption. Dietary guidelines advise consuming between 20-35 percent of total daily calories from fat, but many American adults far exceed this range.

6. Carbs

The human body draws the majority of its energy from carbohydrates, but most of the carb intake on the Standard American Diet comes from refined sources. We’re talking about foods like white flour stripped of nutrients, vitamins and fiber. A professor in my plant based nutrition course once joked, our diets are full of refined foods and chronic disease has become widespread, but “then we blame [the sugar in] grapes for [our] health problems.”

Packaged food tricks? Look for the word ‘whole’ in front of your carbohydrate ingredients, and check the fiber content. Three grams of fiber per 100 calories in each serving is a great indicator that whole grains were used.

7. Cholesterol

Shoutout to my vegan foodies out there! Plant based products don’t contain cholesterol, so if a food label displays a value greater than “0” take another look at the ingredient list for hidden animal products.

8. Buy On Sale

Let the sale items guide your purchases. You just might end up branching out and trying new things.

9. Buying in Bulk

To save extra cash on your staple fruits and veggies befriend the produce manager at your local store. You just might get a call when they receive a new shipment or have an extra crate of spotty bananas lying around. Organic bananas are my go-to bulk item. If your bulk produce starts to turn before you can eat it then pop it in the freezer for later use. You can freeze almost anything! Kale, herbs, coconut water… Future post topic for sure :) Because who wouldn't want frozen leaves and nut water in their freezer?

How do the packaged products and produce in your house measure up? Take a look. Maybe you will be surprised. As always, let me know what you think in the comments below :) When it comes to deciphering labels and making healthy choices, what are some of your favorite foodie tricks?