Our last blog covered how to understand nutrition labels, so now you know how to read a nutrition label. We’re going to tell you how to read the product ingredients in food and how to decipher its packaging!
Product ingredients list the highest amount to the lowest amount. This means the first ingredient is what the food contains most. A good rule of thumb is to scan the first three ingredients as it will be what you’re mostly eating.
The First Three Ingredients
If the first couple of ingredients includes refined grain, sugar, or hydrogenated oil, it’s a sign that the item isn’t healthy.
Refined grains include white flour, white rice, and white bread. A lot of bread, cereals, crackers, desserts, and pastries use refined grains as their main ingredient. A grain is considered refined when it is missing one of the three key parts (bran, germ, or endosperm) of a whole grain. Removing any of these three parts makes the grain lose its nutritional value. A refined grain will remove about a quarter of the protein and a half to two-thirds or more of other nutrients.
Sugars in food work to add sweetness and preserve the food. The common sugars we see in product ingredients are corn syrup, glucose syrup, high fructose corn syrup, sucrose, dextrose, and so much more. Artificial sweeteners are also commonly found as replacements for sugar. So look out for the words sucralose, saccharin, aspartame, and acesulfame. In fact, there are over 50 common names for sugar.
Sugar Science found that added sugar is hidden in 74% of packaged foods. While we think sugar is traditionally found in baked goods and sodas, it can also be found in “healthy food”. Healthy food with high sugar content can be yogurt, a breakfast bar, cereal, juice, and more.
We only use natural, whole sources of sugar in our bars. When you include ingredients such as dates, for instance, you to get the natural fruit sugars, but you also get all of the minerals, vitamins, and fiber along with it.
Hydrogenated oils are used to keep food fresher for longer. It’s usually added to processed foods like baked goods, frozen meals, coffee creamers, and snack foods. Hydrogenated oil is vegetable oil turned from liquid fat into solid fat at room temperature. Most hydrogenated oils are bad for your health because they contain trans fats. But some hydrogenated oil can be monounsaturated or polyunsaturated fats, which are good fats. The good fats are soybean oil, olive oil, peanut oil, and canola oil.
Since 2006, the FDA has required food manufacturers to list trans fats on their nutrition labels. Food that contains partially hydrogenated oil can be labeled trans fat free or list 0 grams of trans fat in the nutrition label. That's because products with less than 0.5 grams of trans fats per serving are classified as trans-fat-free.
But be wary of foods that only list hydrogenated oil without specifying if it’s partially or fully hydrogenated. Food with partially hydrogenated oil contains trans fats. While products with fully hydrogenated oils are trans-fat-free, which manufacturers list as a benefit and a healthy alternative. This is why it’s important to read the nutrition label and ingredients in your food.
If these are not mentioned at the beginning of the food ingredients, they could be mentioned later in the list. That’s why you should read the whole label and know the buzzwords. Sugar, as we mentioned, has many names: honey, brown rice syrup, agave nectar, or words ending in “ose” like glucose or fructose. Sodium can be hidden with multiple words too, such as salt, brine, baking soda, and sodium benzoate.
For our Cacao Peanut Butter bar, the first ingredient is organic dates. Because it’s the first ingredient, it means organic dates are what the bar is mostly made up of. The second is pea protein powder and then organic peanut butter.
Food and Beverage Dates
Let’s not forget the food and beverage dates. Most people think it’s the date when the food item is no longer safe to consume, but that’s wrong. In fact, product dates are not federally required so it’s up to the manufacturer if they want to add an expiration date.
The “Sell By” date is the suggestion the food manufacturer gives the store for when they should sell the items. You’ll see this on meat, poultry, eggs, and milk products. This date is the date you should purchase the item by.
The “Use By” date tells you how long the item will be at peak quality. It doesn’t mean the item is bad if consumed after the date, it just might not be as flavorful. Lastly, the “Best if Used By” tells consumers how long the item will have the best flavor or quality.
Don’t Trust The Packaging
Many foods will try to trick you into buying them because of their light, low or reduced calories, or some other buzzword. But that doesn’t always mean healthy. It actually has very little to do with how nutritious the food is.
Light means the product is processed to reduce either the calories or the fat. Sometimes, this really means the product is watered down. This can be the case for yogurt. Yogurt might boast that it’s low fat, but in order to make up for the fat that gives it its flavor, manufacturers will add sugar.
The FDA sets specific rules for how food manufacturers can label their products. Items labeled low-fat, low-calories, or low-carb have a legal limit to how many calories, grams of fat, and carbs they contain per serving. As we noted in our last blog, serving size is important. If it’s a small serving size, you might actually end up eating more of it, which means you’d be eating the same amount of fat, calories, and carbs as the regular food item.
Multigrain sounds healthy, but again it’s misleading. All it means is there is a product with more than one type of grain. The type of grain isn’t specified so it could mean all the grains in the product are all refined grains.
Instead of Googling every ingredient on your food, try eating foods with short ingredient lists. They make it easy to understand. The added perk of choosing VitaminBar is being able to read, pronounce, and understand all the ingredients in your bar. It means you know what you’re consuming and you know how it can fuel your body.