By Rachel Crabtree
As a result of our constantly dieting culture, we’re always looking at food labels for how many fat grams, sugars, carbohydrates or calories are in a particular item. However, in so doing we may be overlooking the most important part of reading the label: What’s in it? The actual ingredients of a food product will dictate the calories, carbs, sugars, etc. But more importantly, they’ll tell you the quality of nutrition and, therefore, the level of fullness and satisfaction you’ll get from eating it. As a consumer, we are easily fooled into thinking we’re getting a great, healthy food … but are we?
In the past 20 years, the government has done a major overhaul of labeling regulations. Food manufacturers have followed suit by finding ways to manipulate words and requirements to make consumers think they’re getting something they’re really not. For example, just because something says “whole grain” doesn’t mean it’s really whole grain. It may have trace amounts of whole-wheat flour, and the remaining grains are “enriched unbleached” flours.
There has also been a huge surge in food science and product development over this same time period. We’ve started to see more “artificial” ingredients such as fillers, stabilizers, emulsifiers, flavors and colors in prepared foods. All of these things have an effect on our level of satisfaction and fulness, which directly affect how much and how often we eat. These determine our weight, which in turn affects our overall health.
The lesson? What is actually in the food we eat is ultimately more important than knowing how many grams of fat, carbs and sugar it has.
Ask yourself these four questions when reading food labels:
1.) What are the first five ingredients? Ingredients are listed in descending order of quantity used. If the first ingredient listed is “whole-wheat flour,” that is the primary ingredient, or the one of greatest quantity. So if the first ingredient is “sugar,” that means there’s more sugar in the product than anything else.
2.) Do you recognize the ingredients? Food should be recognizable! What is trisodium phosphate? Yellows No. 5 & 6? Modified corn starch? In sharp contrast, what are whole-grain oats? Rice? Molasses? BakingsSoda? If your ingredient list is packed full of things you don’t know, perhaps you should rethink eating it.
3.) What are the ingredients? Trisodium phosphate, for example, (which is in Lucky Charms cereal and many other popular products), “is a cleaning agent, food additive, stain remover and degreaser. Trisodium phosphate was at one time extensively used in formulations for a wide variety of consumer-grade soaps and detergents, but ecological problems have largely ended that practice, at least in the Western world,” according to Wikipedia. Do we really need soap ingredients that have been banned for causing ecological problems in our food?
4.) How many ingredients are listed? If a product has more than 20 or so things in it, there’s probably a lot of fluff and little real substance.
If you have real, recognizable ingredients in the food, it is most likely a “whole food” product. When you eat whole foods, you feel fuller and more satisfied for longer periods of time, leading to less overeating and a healthier you. If you’re eating foods with lots of fillers and artificial ingredients, you may feel full initially (and bloated for awhile) but soon you’ll hear your stomach start to growl and want something else to eat.
Next time you go to the grocery, take a look at the ingredient list on a few of your favorite food items. Then, based on what you see, make a more informed decision on whether to buy them.
Rachel Crabtree was born in Ohio but moved with her family to rural Casey County in Kentucky at the age of 7. She was raised on a farm full of chickens, goats and organic gardens. Rachel is a 1997 graduate of the University of Kentucky and worked as a stockbroker for several years before moving to a career in her true area of passion: fitness and health. She currently owns Well Fed! in Lexington, which provides healthy, nutritionally balanced, portion-controlled, fresh, organic/local foods for individuals and families.