Try It Tuesday: Reading Food Labels

A couple months ago, we wrote a post about added sugars. Like most of our sugars posts, it garnered quite a bit of discussion on social media. One comment really stood out to me: “How are we supposed to know what’s in our food?” A little confused, I asked if the commenter reads ingredient labels. He told me “no” and that "it takes too much time.” And with that, another Try It Tuesday was in the making.

Unlike our previous Try It Tuesdays, I’m not going to delve too much into my diet. Instead, I’m going to take you through my normal grocery store trip. On every grocery store run, I always stop and read labels, and while it sounds like a lot of time, I’d argue that taking at least a little extra time to review the nutritional content of the food you buy is worth the investment.

To keep myself as efficient as possible, I group all of the like items together so I only have to be in a particular section once. And since chia seeds are at the front in the international food section, I went there first. On the chia seed bag in big, block letters it is labeled “GLUTEN-FREE” and “VEGAN.” For someone with celiac disease or who tries to avoid meat and animal byproducts, this label would be perfect … but for me, not so much. If I weren’t already familiar with chia seeds, I wouldn’t even know what nutrients it had. I threw the chia seeds into my cart and moved on. I didn’t really read the label for this one.

Next, applesauce. I get the individually packaged variety, which makes it perfect for an on-the-go snack. I prefer to get applesauce with no added sugar; personally, I find it sweet enough as is. This means I will take a little more time finding applesauce than chia seeds. Since different applesauce brands are pretty similar in terms of nutritional content, I skip the Nutrition Facts panel and move right to the ingredients. The first pack had honey in it, which is considered an added sugar, even though it’s a “natural” sugar, so I put that back. The next pack was mixed apples and carrots. It was a pretty cool idea, but since I wasn’t sure of the taste, I put that back too. Third time is the charm! Applesauce with no added sugar, and it’s on sale! It took a minute to find my preferred type of applesauce. A little longer than chia seeds, but still not that much time.

Now, some milk. I prefer lactose-free (since I’m lactose intolerant), 2% fat, and fortified with calcium and vitamin D. In this instance, the information on the front can be helpful. Lactose-free and fortified milk is often labeled. I quickly glance through the milks, and “LACTOSE-FREE!” and “FORTIFIED WITH CALCIUM AND VITAMIN D” stick out from the crowd. Perfect! I grab it, glance at the Nutrition Facts panel to make sure it’s a good source of calcium and vitamin D (it is), put it in my cart, and move on. It only took 30 seconds.

Now, for bread. I like to make sure my bread contains whole grains. Dietary Guidelines recommend making at least half of the grains you eat whole grains because consuming whole grains is associated with a lower risk for heart disease and some cancers. I also like to make sure my bread contains at least 4 grams of fiber per slice. While many think of fiber when they think of whole grains, they are not one and the same.

Because I am looking for two things – whole grains and fiber – this may seem like it will take a while, but I have a trick. The best indication of whole grains is the “Whole Grain Stamp.” Created by the Whole Grains Council, it lists right on the package the amount of whole grains per serving.

Searching through the breads, I quickly glanced at the front to make sure I saw the Whole Grain Stamp; if I didn’t see it, I put it down, and if I saw it, I checked the Nutrition Facts panel. The first bag didn’t have the stamp. The second one did, but only 2 grams of fiber. Third time is the charm! It had the stamp and 4 grams of fiber. In total, I spent about two minutes in the bread aisle. 

Between reading labels and walking around the store, my entire trip took 25 minutes, with five minutes spent waiting to check out. So, not long at all. While I’m unsure what makes consumers not want to read labels, I do have some tips that can make the process faster and easier:

  • Make a List: I always make a grocery list, but if you know you’re looking for specific nutrients, you can make a list of that too. Maybe it’s whole grains, vitamin A, omega-3, or calcium. Whatever it is, make a note so you won’t forget.
     
  • Ingredients List Matters: In the case of applesauce, I knew brands without added sugars wouldn’t differ that much in terms of nutrition. Since I was looking for brands without added sugar, the ingredients list became my most important focus. If you’re looking to have or avoid certain ingredients, make sure you read the ingredients list.
     
  • Compare and Contrast: It doesn’t take that long to compare labels between brands to make sure you’re getting exactly what you’re looking for. Don’t settle. I knew there was bread with 4 grams of fiber per slice because I’ve compared and contrasted before. If I didn’t, I would’ve settled for a variety with less fiber.
     
  • Buy the Same Thing: If you find a brand that has everything you look for, keep buying it. If you already know what’s on the label, you don’t need to spend time reading it. Of course, brands do reformulate from time to time, so checking back once in a while is a good practice to keep.

It’s important to read labels, even if you think it takes too much time. Knowing the nutritional makeup of your food (nutrients and ingredients), serving size, and calories can help you make a more informed choice. And if you’re not sure what to look for, check out the FDA’s guide to reading labels. It’s a helpful guide that will clear up any confusion for you.

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