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3 Simple Ways to Decode Food Labels for Healthy Eating

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Ever looked at your food’s nutrition label only to find it’s written in a foreign language? Deciphering food labels can sometimes feel like cracking a complex code. Even on something as common as the ingredients for a typical bag of bread, there are so many unfamiliar terms it’s easy to get lost in translation. Here are some tips on how to decode food labels so you can make healthier and more informed choices for yourself and your family.

woman holding package of bread as she reads ingredients as part of learning to decode food labels

One key thing to remember is that the less processed a food is, the less scary the ingredients list becomes. And usually, the less processed the food, the more healthful it is to eat. Thankfully, you’re not the only everyday non-chemist who cares about what’s going into their bodies, and support is growing every day for increased food production transparency through things like the clean label trend.

In the meantime, keep the following quick and easy tips in mind to help you decode food labels and make sense of the information found on the back of your favorite foods.

1. Aim for Short and Simple

The first thing to consider as you learn to decode food labels is the ingredients. The ingredient list on food packaging is your key to understanding what’s really in that product. Typically, the closer an ingredient is to the top, the more of it that product contains. And while it’s not absolute, a good rule of thumb to judge the healthiness of a food is to look at the length of its ingredients list.

Many supposedly not-bad-for-you foods have a long list of unpronounceable ingredients. That is often a red flag as it typically means that the food has been heavily processed. Let’s use our loaf of bread as an example. The ingredient label reads like this:

Enriched Wheat Flour (Wheat Flour, Malted Barley Flour, Niacin, Iron Thiamin Hydrochloride, Riboflavin, Folic Acid), Water, Sugar Yeast, Salt, Soybean Oil and or Canola Oil, Salt, Dough Conditioners (Monoglycerides, Sodium Stearoyl, Lactylate, Ascorbic Acid, Enzymes, Preservatives (Calcium Propionate, Propionic Acid, Phosphoric Acid), Yeast Nutrients,( Monocalcium Phosphate, Calcium Sulfate, Ammonium Sulfate), Soy lecithin.)

There are a lot of ingredients with hard-to-pronounce names in that list. Now some of those ingredients like niacin, riboflavin, and folic acid are all different kinds of Vitamin B. Not exactly chemicals on the Cancer-Causing Food’s Most Wanted List, right?

The problem is those Vitamin Bs had to be added in because the original whole food (wheat) became so processed that all the good, naturally-occurring nutrients were stripped away. 

While healthiness will always be debated, most people agree that less processing means fewer problems. Likewise, the fewer ingredients, the healthier the food. So, you want to aim for shorter ingredient lists with ingredients you can pronounce!

2. Look for Foods with Fewer Additives and Preservatives

As you learn to decode food labels, keep an eye out for additives and preservatives that are found in processed foods.

For example, potassium bromate is a food additive found in most non-organic packaged baked goods in the U.S. As a carcinogen for lab animals, it’s banned in Canada, the European Union, Brazil, and China. Yet despite this, the FDA continues to categorize the substance as “generally recognized as safe” and allows it in our baked goods!

Preservatives like BHA and BHT are also commonly found in baked goods and are also linked to cancer in animal testing. Another thing these two chemicals have in common with potassium bromate? They’re deemed “generally recognized as safe” by the FDA, yet they are banned in many European countries. 

One way to avoid processed foods, additives, and preservatives is to go Organic. Organic foods are a great and easy place to start your healthy food journey.

In order to be certified Organic, a food item cannot have any controversial ingredients or be treated with harmful pesticides. These foods are also minimally processed and don’t have many (if any) artificial ingredients, additives, or synthetic preservatives.

Interestingly, many people in the U.S. have been misdiagnosed as “gluten intolerant” only to later find out that they can eat all the gluten-filled foods their heart desires with no pain or discomfort as long as it’s Organic. The FDA can say what it likes, but the proof is in the pudding (or in this case, the bread).

couple shopping for food and looking at ingredients as way to decode food label

3. Don’t Believe Everything Your Read on Food Labels

As you learn to decode food labels, you will see that food labels don’t always mean what they say. A lot of food packaging flaunts trendy health claims like “all-natural,” “gluten-free,” or “low-fat” But are they really? Understanding these claims can help you avoid falling into marketing traps.

For example, the term “low-fat” might mean less fat, but it could also mean more sugar. Similarly, “all-natural” doesn’t necessarily mean healthy – sugar is technically natural too! Therefore, you should always cross-reference those health claims with the ingredient list and nutrition panel in order to get the full picture.

Healthy Food: It’s Complicated, But It’s Not

If you’ve recently started paying more attention to what’s in your food, figuring out where to start can be overwhelming. Between Googling terms like “dough conditioners” and “Iron Thiamin Hydrochloride” to sort out the difference between Organic and non-GMO, there’s a lot that goes into being “healthy.” Thankfully, the root of most of the complications comes down to over-processing. So when in doubt, just keep it simple, and remember these tips on how to decode food labels.

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