4 Hacks for Reading Ingredients Lists
Think about the last time you grabbed a snack. Maybe it was while you were watching a movie, reading a book, or working. Regardless of what you got, you probably didn’t think much about reading its ingredient list first. However, given the amount of processed and unhealthy foods in the market, you may want to change that habit.
Reading the ingredients or glancing at the nutrition facts on a snack’s packaging is a great habit because it helps you become more purposeful and conscious about what you’re putting in your body.
Despite our best intentions, however, these labels are often complicated and confusing, possibly containing a bunch of items with lengthy names we’ve never heard of.
One reason for these often mystifying lists is complex food regulations. They can make it difficult for people to differentiate between junk food and genuinely healthy food.
If you’re trying to navigate the confusing world of food labels and healthy snacks, it’s important to understand how to read the ingredients list. Here’s everything you ought to know!
Are Your Snacks Healthy? 4 Hacks for Reading Food Labels
When it comes to reading food labels, some basic hacks will keep you on the right track. Here are the most effective ways to stay on top of confusing food labels and figure out whether a particular snack is actually nutritious:
1. Take Claims on the Front With a Pinch of Salt
Or, just completely ignore claims that are written on the front of the packaging altogether.
The truth is front labels are designed to lure customers into purchasing a product with health claims that may not be entirely true.
In fact, these claims are often used to psychologically manipulate customers. This is because people often believe that a snack with healthy claims on the front of the package is healthier than the same product without these claims.
Therefore, you’re better off skipping the front part of the package and focusing on the smaller list of ingredients instead.
2. Study the List of Ingredients
Ingredient lists are listed based on which ingredients make up most of the product. Paying attention to the first few ingredients is a convenient way to know what you’re getting most of.
You can use this knowledge to make sure that you’re getting the right nutrition in a particular snack, especially by scanning the first three ingredients.
For example, if a product contains any type of sugar, refined grain, or hydrogenated oils as the most prominent ingredients, then it’s an unhealthy product.
On the other hand, if whole foods make up the top three ingredients, then it’s a healthier option.
3. Pay Attention to the Serving Size Mentioned on the Label
Nutrition labels often list calories and nutrients based on serving size. This means that the amounts listed don’t always account for the entire package but just portions of it. It’s also important to note that these serving sizes are often smaller than what people typically consume in one sitting.
This can be deceptive, as consumers may assume that the food has less sugar and fewer calories than it has. In fact, people sometimes assume that an entire container or pack is a single serving and the numbers given on the label are proportionately accurate.
Therefore, it’s important to pay attention to the serving size mentioned on the label, and multiply that by the number of servings you’ve had. This will give you a more accurate idea of the nutritional value of your snack.
4. Look Out for Misleading Buzzwords
Food labels often use a lot of buzzwords that are meant to mislead the customer into thinking that a product is healthier than it really is. Knowing what these words are and what they really mean is essential to ensure that you’re consuming food that is actually healthy:
- Light - often, “light” products are simply watered down and are processed to have lower fat and calories. This often results in additives such as sugar being added to the food.
- Multigrain - as healthy as it sounds, “multigrain” means that the product contains more than one type of grain which is most likely refined.
- Organic - as nice as it sounds, an “organic” label does not guarantee that a product is actually healthy.
- No added sugar - some products may be naturally high in sugar, may not require additional sugar, or may contain sugar substitutes. Such products are often marketed as having “no added sugar,” which can be misleading and an inaccurate estimate of their sugar content.
- Zero trans fat- this means that the product has less than 0.5 grams of trans fat per serving. When multiplied by the actual contents in the package, you’ll realize that the product contains more trans fat than you thought it did.
- Fruit-flavored - processed foods may refer to natural flavors without actually containing any real fruit. In fact, this flavor may be a result of chemicals used in the product that are designed to replicate natural flavors.
- Gluten-free - just because a product has no spelt, wheat, barley, or rye doesn’t make it healthy. “Gluten-free” can be loaded with fat and sugar, and be highly processed, making them fairly unhealthy food.
- Low-fat - “low-fat” sounds appealing, but very often manufacturers add sugar to reduce the fat content of the product. The same applies to low-carb foods which may be processed in the same way as low-fat foods, making them unhealthy.
- Low-calorie - brands use this term very loosely, and it is always in relation to their own products. Therefore, what is relatively “low-calorie” for one brand, may have the same amount of calories as another product.
- Made with whole grains - while whole grains are healthy, simply mentioning “whole grains” on the packaging isn’t enough to automatically make a snack healthy. This is a marketing tactic. If whole grains don’t rank high on the ingredient list, there’s a good chance there’s only a small, negligible amount of whole grains in your snack.
Ingredients lists may be confusing and discouraging to read but once you know these 4 hacks, it lessens the complexity and makes you a smarter consumer.
- Don’t mind the large marketing print on the front of the package.
- Pay attention to the first 3 ingredients.
- Don’t forget the serving sizes.
- Be wary of misleading buzzwords.
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