There are a lot of numbers and words on virtually all sides of a package of food. While there’s time to read the breakfast cereal while eating it, it would be pretty crazy to try to read the whole thing before putting it into the cart at the store, especially if one means to explore other options. Thankfully, knowing a few tips can make selecting healthy food, and selecting it quickly, a whole lot easier. This article will explore the food labeling on some of the most common examples of crazy claims, though the information should help when applied more broadly as well.
Meat Labeling: If it isn’t Certified it Might not be True
We’ve talked a little about meat labeling in our articles about dietary protein and dietary fats, but depending on the type of meat, there can be a lot of numbers and phrases being thrown around, which could do with some explanation.
There are loads of labels on meats, especially birds like chicken and turkey. Most of these labels address whether the animals where given growth hormones, whether they had an organic diet, and even what their living conditions were. Most of these things are not legally regulated, so the claims are not necessarily trustworthy. For statements like these (as well as other statements) check to see if they are “certified” and if so, by whom. If it just says that the statement is certified, it may not be, but statements that say that they are certified by the USDA and other easily recognizable agencies are probably legitimate.
It’s important to note that most of these statements aren’t exceedingly important in terms of weight loss. The most important label for those watching their weight, as well as other numbers like cholesterol, is on packaged ground beef, which will record how “lean” the meat is by percentage. This number can be a little tricky in that the numbers are sort of backward, in that the percentage that is lean is the percentage that is not fat. If something is eighty percent lean, it has twenty percent fat.
There are labels on non-ground meat as well, but these are less important, as it is fairly easy to tell the fat content, as fat is usually readily visible as the white substance on the meat, usually toward the outside of the cut. While some people will go to efforts to pick cuts of meat without a great deal of fat, it’s easier, and often cheaper, to get any old cut of meat and trim the extra fat off at home.
Breakfast Cereal: Numbers You Don’t Need and Claims That Don’t Count
The average box of breakfast cereal is coated with more numbers than a standard baseball card. As is the case with meats, these numbers contain valuable dietary information – mainly relating to mineral content – which is of no direct assistance to one’s weight loss objectives.
The biggest thing to watch for on cereals is their claims to be made with whole grains. While whole grains are significantly better than modified grains, most cereals are full of other no-good ingredients like sugars and corn-syrups. This is the moment to turn the box and read the side.
The side of the cereal box is usually where the nutrition label is. The nutrition label contains the carbs and calorie counts in a standard serving (which can be helpful, assuming one follows the serving suggestion) as well as the ingredients panel, where the ingredients are listed in order based on how much of that ingredient is in the product. While it’s true that whole grains may be at the top of the list, some form of sugar is often the second, and possibly third ingredient. If there’s that much sugar, whether the product contains whole grains starts to matter less and less. In addition to the order of ingredients, many people are wary of a product with too many ingredients. This can be a good rule of thumb for many products: If the ingredients list is too intimidating a block of text, the product is probably not a good choice.
Salad Dressings: Is Fat Free Better?
Salad dressings are another good example of dietary claims to watch out for. A good place to begin is with the “fat-free” line. Most products that are fat-free replace that fat with added sugars, which many dietitians believe is worse than fats in the first place.
Salad dressings are also quick to make the claim that they have “X% less fat,” less sugar, less sodium, &c. All of these claims require some cross-examining. For example, less fat than whom? If it is “less fat than the leading competitor,” and you do not buy whatever brand that is, it’s no good to you that this brand has less fat. If it does not say “than the leading competitor” it probably means that this brand has recently changed their formula. If this is the case, it will be good to check the nutrition label to see how much of the ingredient there is. If they had too much of it to start with and removed 25% it could be that there is still too much and it would be better to go with another brand. Another valuable question would be what kind of fat the dressing uses. Many older-style dressings like Italian dressings use vegetable oils, which are a healthy source of unsaturated fats, provided they are not listed as “partially hydrogenated” – the worst kind of fat. If a brand uses a healthy form of oils for their fats and they just cut the fat, it was likely unnecessary, and may mean that they replaced the healthy fat with something worse.
Whether its salad dressings or other prepared foods, many products are also now boasting reduced sodium. While many people these days are getting more sodium than they need, if you don’t have a high sodium level you probably don’t need to look for reduced sodium items. Elevated sodium levels can cause the body to hold onto water which can lead to the “water weight” that some dieters have trouble getting rid of, and in more severe cases can cause high blood pressure, which can cause undue wear and tear on the heart. Chances are, if your doctor hasn’t warned you about your sodium levels, sodium isn’t a problem for you.
Don’t shy away from salting food at the table, however, as table-salt is how most people get most of their iodine, a necessary nutrient. The salts used in most prepared foods is not iodized, so it’s possible to have low iodine and high sodium.
Knowing how to navigate the basics of food labeling can cut down time spent choosing the best options, and you can always go back and read the in-between stuff at home. Or not, seeing as its always dense, and more than the average person cares to know.