Food marketers are really good at using words and imagery that give the perception of health, when in reality that’s not the case. Known as the Health Halo Effect, it’s a marketing strategy used by food manufacturers in attempts to influence your buying behavior. And while this may sound like something that doesn't affect you, sometimes it can be hard to tell what is actually healthy and what is just a marketing tactic used by food companies trying to trick you into believing their products are better for you than they really are.
As consumers, it’s OUR responsibility to be conscious shoppers and truly understand what’s in the food we purchase. And the best way to avoid falling victim is by reading food labels and avoiding foods that contain questionable ingredients.
This guide is designed to help health-conscious individuals decode the nutrition label in a way that will help you make informed decisions about the food you’re putting in your basket – and your body. Use this checklist as a handy reminder of what you should be looking for on food labels, how to avoid unwanted ingredients, and tips to decode common nutrition label claims.
Tip #1 - Read The Ingredients
Fewer Ingredients is Better: When purchasing packaged foods, the fewer the ingredients the better. Look for options with a short list of recognizable ingredients.
Avoid Unfamiliar Ingredients: Steer clear of products containing ingredients that you don’t recognize and are difficult to pronounce – like maltodextrin, monosodium glutamate and butylated hydroxyanisol.
Check For Added Sugar: Sugar is often disguised under another name. Always check the “includes added sugars” section on the Nutrition Facts label and avoid anything over 10g of added sugar per serving.
Quality Counts: Opt for organic over conventional. The organic version of any food will ALWAYS be better for you compared to the non-organic option.
Avoid Chemicals: Avoid foods with added flavors, colors, and sweeteners. These are artificial ingredients made from chemicals that have toxic effects in the body.
Tip #2 - Look For Healthy Fats
Quality Over Quantity: Foods labeled “low-fat” don’t mean a thing. A small amount of low-quality fat (like hydrogenated or vegetable oil) can be more problematic than a large amount of high-quality fat (like avocado, coconut & olive oil).
Saturated Fats Are Not "Bad": Our bodies need a balance of both saturated and unsaturated fats. Moderate amounts of high-quality, organic saturated fats either from grass-fed/grass-finished meats or plant-based sources such as coconut oil and cocoa butter can offer big benefits to your body.
Avoid Vegetable Oils: Known as PUFAs (polyunsaturated fats), most vegetable oils are highly processed/refined and trigger fat cells to grow. This includes canola, soybean, corn, and safflower oils.
Choose Organic, High-Quality Oils: Most of the oils you see in plastic containers on the aisles of your local supermarket are low-quality oils that are best avoided. Choose organic oils that are sold in dark, glass containers, and come from trusted sources. Olive, avocado and coconut oils are great options. And if the price seems too good to be true, it probably is.
Tip #3 - Don't Forget...
Check Serving Size And Number of Servings: Manufacturers often times manipulate the nutrition facts to appear healthier (i.e. fewer calories or grams of fat) by breaking up the servings per container and setting the serving size unreasonably low. That’s why you’ll often see a single beverage or bar with 2-3 servings.
Fewer Calories Isn't Necessarily Better: The number of calories is determined by the amount of macronutrients (fat, protein, carbs) and should not be the primary consideration when deciding whether a food item is “healthy.” Where your calories come from is more important. 100 calories from an avocado is far superior to 100 calories from a candy bar.
Cholesterol Isn't The Cause: Recent scientific data doesn’t support the idea that high levels of cholesterol contribute to heart disease. The Framingham Heart Study, which is the most extensive study on risk factors for cardiovascular disease ever done, found that there is zero correlation between large amounts of cholesterol in the diet and the risk of heart disease. Cholesterol is the response, not the cause.
Tip #4 - Know What's Not On The Label
GMOs: Food manufacturers are not currently required to list GMOs on the label in the U.S. and Canada. The best ways to avoid them are to buy organic and choose foods that have the “Non GMO Project Verified” label.
Indirect Additives: These are “hidden additives” (unreported) and contaminants that may have entered the food during some phases of production. They include pesticides, antibiotics, hormones, pharmaceuticals, and chemical pollutants.
Toxic Chemicals: Many processed foods are exposed to toxic chemicals used during processing and packaging – like BPA from plastic packaging, dyes from boxes, and industrial cleaning products.
Labeling Irradiated Foods is Not Required: Spices, dehydrated enzymes, and dried vegetables are among the most heavily treated with more that 100 million times the amount of radiation than the average chest x-ray. To be safe, buy organic!
Tip #5 - Keep In Mind These Additional Good To Knows
Where You Shop is Just a Start: Health food stores like Whole Foods, Mother's Market, Sprouts and Trader Joe's are a great place to start; however just because you are shopping at a health food store, doesn't mean all of the products they carry are healthy. It’s important to read food labels regardless of where you shop.
Packaging Subjectivity and Labeling Inaccuracies: Claims like “high in fiber” or “lowers cholesterol” are used loosely and can be misleading to the average consumer. In addition, foods can actually say “fat free” or “sugar free” and still have fat and sugar as long as they total 0.5 grams or less per serving. Nutrition Facts measurements are not an exact science and many labels are off by up to 20%.
The Term "Natural": Probably the most misleading and misused word in food marketing. There is no FDA or USDA definition, which means this word is used very liberally. “Natural” does not mean the same thing as organic and it offers no guarantees of being healthy or toxin free.
Everyone is Different: We all have bio-individuality. What worked for someone else, won’t necessarily work for you. Make sustainable choices that feel right to you and your body. Consider working with a certified nutritionist to help find the right balance for you.
We understand how difficult it can be to sort through all the options available and feel-good claims made on food labels. That's why we've made it our mission to provide consumers with transparency and peace of mind. No one deserves to be misled when it comes to the food we put in our bodies.
Check out our better-for-you, better tasting baking mixes to see what transparency looks like in food labeling and packaging.