How To Read Food Labels

Commercially prepared foods are great savers of kitchen time, but we must know what we are buying and whether it is compatible with our specific diet. To determine if the food is right for us, we must read food labels. Food labels offer two components: the "Nutrition Facts," which are in a box, and the ingredient list. The ingredient list is required by law to list ingredients in order of the quantity used with the ingredient that makes up most of the food listed first.

Click on the Nutrition Facts box to zoom in on it.

At the top of the nutrition facts box is the serving size and number of calories per serving. Do not obsess about calories. If you need to lose weight, calories are not what really count; hormones are most important. To prevent a food from looking too caloric on the label, the manufacturer may reduce the serving size to lower the calorie count, thus rendering the serving size unrealistic and the calories per serving nearly meaningless.

The next section of the nutrition facts lists the amount of fat, carbohydrate and protein per serving. For cancer patients, the amount of trans fats should be zero. On food labels zero may not mean zero, however, because government guidelines call two grams of trans fat per day a safe amount to consume. Cancer patients especially should totally eliminate trans fats, but everyone should try to avoid unhealthy fats. Read ingredient lists and reject any food that lists hydrogenated fats or partially hydrogenated fats. If possible, choose foods made with healthy oils such as olive, canola or nut oils.

The carbohydrate section of the nutrition facts lists total carbohydrates, dietary fiber and sugars. If following a glycemic control diet, what matters is "net" carbohydrate (the amount of absorbable carbohydrate). This is calculated by subtracting the grams of dietary fiber from the grams of total carbohydrate. Every 15 grams of net carbohydrate (one carbohydrate unit) should be balanced in the same meal or snack with at least 7 grams of protein (one protein unit). Consuming more than 7 grams of protein with each carbohydrate unit is beneficial for many individuals.

"Sugars" includes both healthy sugars like the lactose in milk and unhealthy sugars such as high fructose corn syrup. Read the ingredient list and look for sugar, cane juice, corn syrup, corn sweetener, high fructose corn syrup, sucrose, glucose and dextrose. Avoid foods that contain these ingredients, especially if you are a cancer patient.

On the subject of milk, food labels on milk may have an important additional statement about recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH). If the milk is organic, the label will say that the milk does not contain rBGH. However, some milk that is not certified as organic, including economical grocery store brands, is also free of rBGH.

The label on my Kroger-brand milk says, "Our farmers pledge not to treat their cows with rBGH." Bravo for the farmers! However, the FDA requires that these labels also say, "The FDA has determined that there is no significant difference between milk from rBGH-treated cows and non-rBGH-treated cows." In my opinion, this statement should be ignored. If an economical brand of milk does not say that the farmers pledged not to use rBGH, purchase Kroger or Safeway brand milk or read labels at other stores.

Finally, nutrition labels contain a listing of how much protein and a few vitamins and minerals are in one serving. The protein amount is helpful for balancing protein with carbohydrates as described above. The vitamins and minerals are listed as the percentage of the recommended daily allowance (RDA) that they provide for the nutrient. Keep in mind that these percentages are based on recommended daily allowances of nutrients that may be low for people with compromised health.

Individuals who are on diets for food allergies, gluten intolerance, candidiasis or are on the specific carbohydrate diet, GAPS diet or low FODMAPS diet should read the ingredient list and not consume any foods that contain ingredients forbidden on the diets they are following.

Label-reading is essential for those on allergy and gluten-free diets because commercially prepared foods may contain hidden allergens or sources of gluten. These are foods or food additives which appear on ingredient lists disguised by unfamiliar names. For instance, if the ingredient list contains maltodextrin, people who are allergic to corn should not eat that food. For list of derivatives of common allergenic foods which can appear as disguised or hidden allergenic ingredients, click here. This list may not be exhaustive. Unfortunately, new additives are developed and food names change up so other ingredients might be derived from your problem foods and may not be on the list.

Prepared foods that contain a certain allergen in their usual form also are included in this list. For example, bread is on the list as a source of wheat. However, not all bread is made with wheat; there are a number of gluten-and wheat free breads on the market. You must regularly read the labels of all foods purchased to see if you can or cannot eat them. Manufacturers change ingredients, so we need to re-read labels occasionally. If you find an ingredient not listed here, look it up online and try to determine its source.

Enjoy the safe prepared foods that you find while reading food labels and the time you save on preparing them.