As I harvest the very last fruits and vegetables from my outdoor gardens, I’m saddened to know that I have several cold months ahead in which most of what my family eats will come from the grocery store. I love knowing over the summer exactly how my food is grown and that it travels just a few steps from the vine or plant to my table. For me, it brings new meaning to the term “comfort food.”
Of course, I’m excited to venture into the world of indoor growing this winter. But the fact remains that in my climate, much less will come from my gardens.
It’s not all bad. But I often equate grocery stores to the land of the unknown where consumers don’t know exactly where the products come from, how they were made, or what’s in them. We are constantly being duped by false claims of items being “fat-free,” “sugar-free,” “gluten-free,” “low-calorie,” or “all-natural.”
A 2017 study by the University of Toronto found that many food items claiming to have “no added sugar” or “reduced sugar” content are not actually very good for us at all. Just because no sugar has been added doesn’t mean the food didn’t already contain high sugar levels.
In addition to carrying a hefty calorie load, researchers say 48% of the foods studied contained sugar amounts considered “excess” by the World Health Organization.
A food labeled “natural” may be full of preservatives and salt. “Light” can be describing a product’s flavor rather than ingredients, and items marked as having “zero trans fat” may actually have 0.5 harmful grams in each serving.
We all need to learn how to read food labels so that we’re never duped again.
Learn Your Labels
If you’ve ever felt completely lost while looking at a nutritional label, you’re not alone. A Nielson survey found that 59% of consumers around the world admit to not really understanding the back of the box.
I just recently added Love Real Food by Kathryn Taylor (of the Cookie + Kate blog) to my cookbook collection. I’m so glad I did; this beautiful book is packed with plant-based recipes that are as nutritional as they are delicious. It’s definitely one of my new favorites!
Long story short, in her introduction, author Taylor includes a guide to reading nutritional labels. She recommends focusing on the ingredients. Look for items containing 5-10 ingredients, preferably ones you can pronounce and already cook with at home. She warns to avoid ingredients like high-fructose corn syrup, food dyes, hydrogenated oils, and preservatives like sodium nitrate.
When it comes to sugar content, Taylor reminds us that 4 grams of sugar equal 1 teaspoon, and that can add up really quickly. Avoid any foods that contain 40% or more of the recommended daily sodium intake. It’s really important to look at this part of the label when purchasing canned goods, for instance. Some of them are incredibly high in sodium, while others contain substantially less.
An expert guide to reading nutritional values has also been put out by the Dieticians of Canada. It recommends the following:
- Look at the serving size on the label to determine the number of calories you’ll take in from eating one portion
- The % Daily Value tells you how much of the recommended daily intake of a specific nutrient you will be getting from one serving size. 5% DV or less is a little, whereas 15% DV or more is a lot.
- Try to get more fiber, vitamin A, vitamin C, calcium, and iron
- Take in less fat, saturated fat, trans fat, sodium, and cholesterol
It’s more important than ever to know about where our foods come from, how they’re grown, and the ingredients that go into them. Understanding how to read nutritional labels is arming yourself with the information you need to make wise, healthy choices for yourself and your family.