Studies show that 42% of Americans read nutrition labels, but the average person spends only SIX seconds doing this!
Trying to decipher all the information-from health claims to percentages, grams, and long ingredient lists- is challenging even for those who are motivated. It’s no wonder people don’t want to spend more than 6 seconds processing that jumbled mess of information.
illustration: Gail Anderson and Joe Newton
But it is worth it to spend a little time reading food labels before buying a food product. For those who have medical conditions like high blood pressure, diabetes, or kidney disease, knowing this information can be critical to their health. For others, taking a bit of time to look at the ingredients in a food helps them eat more of foods or nutrients that improve their health (like fiber or calcium), or avoid foods they don’t want (maybe that’s GMO’s or corn syrup or food coloring), Without any of this information, it’s like buying something without knowing how much it costs or even what the product really is!
If six seconds is all you have to read a food label, focus in on the most important basics:
First, spend NO TIME on the front of the package!
The front of the package is like a used car salesman who tells you all the good things about the car (new brakes! new paint job! low miles!), but none of the bad (needs tires, A/C doesn’t work, in TC with serious front end damage). While the statements may be true, they can also be misleading.
Take a look at this box of toaster pastries and point out how many ways they are trying to sell you on how good Pop-Tarts are for you
Notice the – “Made with Whole Grain,” “Good Source of Fiber, “Low Fat” and “Strawberry”? While these statements are true, they are meant to mislead the consumer by focusing your attention on words related to health. The front of the package does not advertise the potential negatives of this food, like the fact that TWO of the first THREE ingredients are added sweeteners (Sugar, Corn Syrup), that some of the grain is NOT whole grain, or that there is more “strawberry flavor” than real strawberries!
Here’s Your 6-second Read:
1. SERVING SIZE
Every single number on the nutrition label is based on the serving size. So while you may think that one Pop-Tart is not a realistic serving, this is what the numbers are based on. If you eat two Pop Tarts, you must double all the numbers calories, fat, sugar, etc. to accurately count your intake. Pop-Tarts is a perfect example of how manufacturers “upwell” you, even when it comes to food. Each package contains two pastries so once opened, you feel as though you’ve got to eat both Pop-Tarts or the one will go bad.
The average adult needs about 2000 calories per day, and this is what the percentages are based on. Check the calories and see if this food fits into your plan for spending 2000 calories per day. Think of calories like money: if you eat two Pop-Tarts at 320 calories total, will that be worth it? Will you have enough to spend on the foods you need?
The best way to save time here (and eat healthier) is to buy foods that don’t have a lot of ingredients! If you or anyone you know has any food allergies, you MUST be extremely careful. While some allergic reactions are mild, others can be life threatening.
There’s a saying you may want to follow …
“Don’t eat anything with more than five ingredients or with ingredients you can’t pronounce.”
Compare the Original Triscuits (4 ingredients) to the Wheat Thins (9 ingredients, the second one being sugar!)
Keep in mind that ingredients are listed in descending order by quantity, so the first ingredient is the most common one. If any of the first three ingredients is added sweetener, you should limit if not forgo the product. For a list of added sweeteners, click here.
There is much more information to read on food labels, especially for particular medical conditions. More on this topic to come in a future post, including how the food labels may be changing in the next few years.