How to Read Food Labels
Grocery shopping can be a tad overwhelming, especially when you’re trying a new way of eating. Primal, paleo, keto, Whole30, vegetarian, vegan—they all have their own set of guidelines about what foods are “allowed” and which you should limit or avoid.
Front-of-package food labels allow you to scan the shelves at your supermarket and quickly gather information about products. Depending on which diet or food plan you’re following, you might decide whether or not to grab an item based on:
- Food type or ingredients: whether it contains grains, animal products, nightshades, added sugar, etc.
- Macronutrient profile: low-carb, low-fat, keto
- How ingredients were grown or harvested: organic versus conventional, wild versus farmed, and so on
Decoding food labels can be tricky, though. Some claims are subject to strict labeling standards, but others are buzzwords meant to draw your attention and make you think that a product is healthy. “Natural” is a good example of the latter. It sounds like something you’d want, but the term isn’t regulated, so ultimately it doesn’t signify anything specific.
It’s up to you, the consumer, to educate yourself about which labels are meaningful and relevant to you. That way, you can efficiently find products best suited to your needs without being sucked in by meaningless claims and marketing ploys.
How Food Labels Can Help You Shop Smarter
Food labels are heuristics—tools for making snappy judgments about which items are up your alley. They can be particularly helpful if you’re following a diet with strict guardrails around what is and is not compliant, such as AIP, or if you have dietary restrictions (you have to avoid gluten or dairy, for example).
However, the icons and claims on the front of the package only tell you so much. They don’t tell you whether a particular product meets your personal standards. I’m pretty sure most Primal folks aren’t going to grab a box of Raisin Bran cereal just because it says “Heart Healthy” on the front and carries the Whole Grain Stamp from the Oldways Whole Grain Council. By the same token, a food could call itself “keto-friendly” and still be made with canola or other oils you typically avoid.
Choosy shoppers should start by deciding what qualities are most important to them. Maybe you prioritize organic and non-GMO foods but could care less about keto or vegan certifications. If your doctor told you that you must follow a low-sodium diet, you might want to know how the FDA regulates claims about sodium content,1 whereas the rest of us probably don’t need to worry about that.
The next step is to learn what different labels actually mean. Who’s in charge of bestowing a given certification or guarantee, and what standards does a product have to meet in order to earn a particular icon? Some food labels and claims are more informative than others.
When shopping, scan the shelves for certification icons and highlighted claims first. Before deciding yes or no, however, flip the product over, read the ingredient list, and check the nutrition facts to confirm they work for you. Here are some labels and icons that Primal consumers may find useful.
Food Labels for Primal, Paleo, and Keto Shoppers
Note: These are some of the common food labels you might want to look for, but bear in mind that it’s not a complete list. If you live outside the U.S., your products may carry different labels.
Certified Paleo: Issued by the Paleo Foundation. Certifies that a product contains no grains, legumes, dairy, artificial coloring, preservatives, artificial sweeteners, or artificial flavors. They also have rules governing allowed ingredients, including approved types of fats and oils, sweeteners, and meat and seafood.2
Keto Certified: Issued by the Paleo Foundation. Products may not contain partially-hydrogenated oils or trans fats, artificial sweeteners (saccharin, cyclamate, acesulfame, aspartame, sucralose), or artificial flavors. Approved ingredients include everything you’d find in the Primal Food Pyramid, including dairy. In this case, grains and legumes are allowed as long as the product does not exceed carbohydrate limits: Meals and meal replacements may not contain more than 10 grams of net carbs per serving; snacks no more than 6 grams of net carbs per serving; and condiments no more than 2 grams of net carbs per 0.5 ounce serving. 3
In the U.S., the word “keto” can’t appear on meat, poultry, or egg products inspected by the USDA. The FDA considers keto a “medical diet,” and the USDA, which is responsible for meat, poultry, and egg labeling, does not allow for health claims. It’s a good reminder that food labels can certainly be helpful, but you shouldn’t rely on them entirely to make your shopping decisions. Meat, poultry, and eggs are staples of most keto diets, no matter what the package does (or, in this case, doesn’t) say.
Whole30 Approved®: Consistent with the rules of the Whole30® program, meaning no added sugar or sweeteners, grains, legumes, dairy, carrageenan, or sulfites. Must also meet Whole30’s Animal Welfare Policy.4
Certified Gluten-Free: Product has been independently verified to be gluten-free by the Gluten-Free Certification Organization. In order to earn the certification, a product and its ingredients cannot exceed the gluten threshold of 10 ppm (parts per million).5
In the U.S., a food manufacturer can also label a product as gluten-free according to the FDA if it contains less than 20 ppm of gluten and does not utilize gluten-containing grains (wheat, rye, barley) or ingredients derived from those grains unless they have been processed to remove gluten.6
Certified Vegan: Administered by the Vegan Awareness Foundation. Products can’t contain an animal-based ingredients, ingredients may not be processed with any animal byproducts, and must not contain any animal-derived GMOs. Ingredients and finished products may not be tested on animals. Companies certify that manufacturing facilities take steps to avoid cross-contamination with non-vegan products.7
Non-GMO Project Verified: Seal of approval given by The Non-GMO Project affirming that a product was manufactured without genetically modified organisms.8
Just Eat Meat and Vegetables?
I’m sure some of you are thinking, “Just eat meat and vegetables, then you won’t have to worry about food labels.” That may be okay for some people, but many foods that come with a label are totally Primal-friendly. Think sauces and condiments, nut butters, snack foods made with grain-free flours.
And don’t forget, meat, eggs, and prepared or frozen fruit and vegetables all carry package claims. These, too, vary in terms of how informative they actually are. Appealing terms like “sustainably farmed” or “humanely raised” aren’t regulated in the U.S. “Cage-free” eggs come from chickens that weren’t confined to cages, but that designation tells you next to nothing about the animals’ diet or living conditions.
Even the “just eat meat and vegetables” crowd will benefit from understanding food labels, assuming they want to prioritize farming, fishing, and animal rearing practices that are better for humans and the environment. Here are some Mark’s Daily Apple Posts that can help get you started:
- How to Buy (and Appreciate) Eggs
- Choosing Chicken: A Primal Purchasing Guide
- Dear Mark: Cheap Meat?
- The Differences Between Grass-Fed Beef and Grain-Fed Beef
What about you? What are your priorities while wandering the supermarket?
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