Decoding Packaged Foods

Decoding Packaged Foods

When it comes to buying food, the healthiest, most nutrient-dense and beneficial things you can buy are real, unpackaged, unprocessed foods.

But obviously, there’s much more to it than that.

When you’re too busy to cook or you need a quick bite, opting for packaged foods can be the best option. When you find yourself needing a quick fix, here’s how to opt for the healthiest packaged foods out there.

Food Facts or Sales Pitch?

Everything on the front of a packaged food is sales marketing.

Not even nutritional sales marketing -- anything you see on the front of a bag or carton is the food company’s first and foremost opportunity to convince you to buy their product.

In many cases, this literally means exaggerating the health benefits -- or misappropriating nutritional information entirely -- that come from eating that product.

None of these labels are FDA-regulated, meaning any manufacturer can label their product with any claim.

It is, quite simply, all about the food manufacturer’s sale on the front. This is where many of us get duped. 

A few of the most common culprits?

Antibiotic free - all cattle in the US are antibiotic free; it’s a requirement by law. If a farmer needs to treat an animal with antibiotics, there is a withdrawal period before the animal can go to market to assure the antibiotics are out of the system.

Simply made - with no true or formal definition, beware of this type of fluff word.

All natural - this is only regulated for eggs & poultry, not what’s on shelves. And even then, natural is a broad term. In the USDA's view, “any natural meat, poultry, or egg product is simply one that is minimally processed & doesn't have any artificial flavorings, colorings, or preservatives added after slaughter.” Most meat products qualify as natural under this definition, so it's a pretty meaningless claim.

Non-GMO - not FDA regulated, meaning anyone can use the label. Now, even produce items are using it, simply to keep up with the market competition. With the non-GMO label saturating the market, consumers are scared to buy anything without the label.

Multigrain - Multi, meaning it most likely includes many refined, unnecessary grains.

Light or reduced fat - this usually means they’ve added in additional (perhaps even more harmful) filler to make the food taste good.

When you see this type of messaging, run! Or, at the very least, know that it means nothing for your health.  

Party in the Back

The back of the packaging is where the truth really lies. This is where food companies are required -- by law -- to reveal what is actually in the food they are selling, as well as the calorie and macronutrient breakdown of that food.

The most important part of any food label is the ingredients list.

This is where companies are required to be transparent about what exactly is in their food. Foods are listed in descending order of ingoing weight at the time of the manufacture of the food. Meaning, the food listed at the top of the list is used most, followed in descending order by the rest of the ingredients used in smaller amounts. 

As a rule of thumb, it's best to avoid anything that has over 10 ingredients in this list. 

Most real food won’t have an ingredients list at all. Chicken, beef, fish, bananas, avocados, apples, broccoli -- none of them come with an ingredients list. That one item is the only ingredient!

The next major element is the nutrition facts. The nutrition facts will give you a breakdown of the calories and macronutrients, as well as a few key vitamins and minerals.

It's super important to pay attention to serving sizes and servings per container!

Just because something is in a small package doesn’t mean that it only contains one serving. Many protein bars or juices will be 3-4 servings for a small package or bottle. With something like nut butters, the servings can quickly and surprisingly add up when a serving is only 1 or 2 tablespoons. 

Here are 6 quick tips to remember the next time you’re looking at these labels!

1️⃣ Look at the amount of food that is actually in the serving size. Compare it to how much you actually eat!
2️⃣ Read the Daily Value (DV). This tells you how much of a nutrient is in that food.

▪️5% or less is a little
▪️15% or more is a lot⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀

3️⃣ Limit trans fat, added sugars, and sodium.
4️⃣ Ingredients are listed from the highest amount to the lowest.
5️⃣ Scan the first 3 ingredients. They make up the bulk of what you are eating.
6️⃣ Natural does not necessarily equate to better! The sun is natural, but is known to cause skin cancer with high exposure.

Most importantly, remember: being a nutrition label detective is awesome. But at the end of the day, consuming real, whole, unprocessed, unpackaged foods is the best way to live your best life.

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Mary Elizabeth Adams
Feb 13, 2020

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