Food Literacy: 6 Tips for Reading Food Labels (Part 1)

Food as Medicine

rena sassi

12/6/20173 min read

Processed foods are the big no no! We probably all know that by now. But why is it so forbidden? We've become so industrialized that when food used to be processed before as a way to either cook it, enhance it or preserve it, these days processed food usually has no actual food in it. Most of the time, processed foods are a jumble of unpronounceable chemicals.

As a health and nutrition doula/coach, I do not advocate for any one type of universal diet as everyone is built differently and each one of us has unique nutritional requirements. I generally endorse a traditional diet that has been handed down through centuries and for my clients I offer a targeted nutrition plan based on their own individual biochemistry based on HTMA results.

But as a mother, I know that completely avoiding processed foods is not realistic. It's not realistic for my funds nor for my sanity. Processed foods do offer the benefit of convenience and affordability if nothing else. It's also impossible to keep my kids from seeing and wanting to try American junk food, its everywhere! But alas, not all processed foods are created equal and I too have some guilty pleasures like a love for chips and chocolate that I am entitled to indulge in every once and awhile. Okay okay, I indulge on the daily. But here's the thing, I make sure we find the least of all evils. We search and find more healthy alternatives [a privilege and luxury of living in the country of consumerism and options] so that when we indulge we feel good doing it.

I've been teaching my kids how to read food labels and here are some tips.

#1 The less ingredients the better.

Every time an ingredient is added it is but one more 'process' in the food; so, the more ingredients the more processed. I tell my kids before even trying to understand the ingredients, scan the label and see how long the list of ingredients is. The longer the list, the less healthy it is and if it looks like it has 20 ingredients just put it away and don't even bother with further investigation. Move on to an option with a shorter list. I tell them a 5 item ingredients list is ideal because 5 foods could fit in your 5 fingered hand. But that's really hard to stick to.

#2 Organic is best.

When you have the option, get organic, (grass fed and pasture raised for meats and wild caught for fish). The extra money is worth feeling good about what you're eating. Worse than eating unhealthy food is to feeling shame, guilt, fear or anger when eating. So organic first and in a lot of cases organic first and only. For certain things like meats, dairy, and certain fruits and vegetables, I'd rather we don't eat them at all than eat the non-organic or inhumane version.

Non-GMO is the next best thing but I wouldn't be a regular consumer of non-GMO because even if it's not genetically modified it's still likely contaminated with Monsanto's cancer causing toxin glyphosate and perhaps other chemicals or hormones. Organic foods are meant to be free of chemicals and hormones. I make the occasional exception for non-GMO instead of organic but I'm really trying to instill in my children the value of honoring and respecting our food as nutrition and nourishment for our bodies. Organic foods respect our bodies and our earth.

#3 Ingredients are listed in order by greater to lesser quantity.
I thought this was common knowledge but I was surprised when I mentioned this to my husband recently and he had no idea that you can know how much of an ingredient is in the food by where it is placed in the ingredient's list.

For example, according to this label sunflower seeds are the main ingredient (meaning there are more sunflower seeds than anything else) followed by sesame seeds in this raw protein bar. Honey and sea salt are the two last ingredients making them the smallest measurable quantities in this processed mix.

I tell them that if sugars are one of the first few ingredients it should be an automatic no.

#4 If you cant pronounce an ingredient, don't eat it.

Food should not have to be decoded, then it's not food. Any ingredients list with colors and numbers is an automatic nope! I don't think I need to explain more as this tip seems pretty common sense right? But here's more info on why these ingredients are dangerous if you really need the hard science.

This also includes the Natural and Artificial flavors category because what does that even mean?!

#5 Real UNrefined Sugar ONLY.

NOT high fructose corn syrup or other artificial sugar replacements. Any natural occurring sweeteners like cane sugar, fruit sugars, honey, stevia etc are good to go. Here's why.

#6 No Canola, Corn, Soybean, Safflower or Grapeseed Oils

The safest oils are coconut, olive oil, avocado oil but I do make the exception for sunflower oil. Here are some reasons to avoid the above oils in addition to being GMO.