How to Speed-Read Nutrition Labels

By Jane Barthelemy. There’s a marketing war going on in every grocery store, battling for your attention and your money. The best advice is to simply eat real, original food, and skip packaged foods altogether.

However most of us do eat some packaged foods. If that’s you, get ready to put your boots on and shop like a true warrior. Ours is an important battle, where we are defending our right to quality food and to live a healthy life. Our weapons are intelligence, wakefulness, and consistency. Prepare yourself for battle, and never shop hungry or depleted. In this battle, we have only the labels to rely on, and they are purposefully misleading. I will show you how to speed-read nutrition labels – what to look for, and what to disregard. My approach is unconventional. There are plenty of other websites that explain every line on the labels. My goal here is to help you decipher a label in seconds, to find the healthiest foods for you, because we don’t have all day. This won’t be my most popular post. However I hope it helps you find the best quality foods, optimize your health, and avoid the rest.

3 Easy Steps to Speed Read the Labels:

Step 1: Forget the Marketing Hype
Patiently disregard the cute splashy designs on the packages. Ignore the meaningless buzz words that have no legal definition, such as “pure”, “fat-free”, “All natural”, “100% natural”, and “cage-free”. Smile as you disregard the word “local” if it doesn’t also tell you exactly how it is raised. Even the word “organic” is suspect, since it doesn’t guarantee proper growing conditions.

Step 2: Look for these RED FLAGS on the ingredient list.

  1. If there are sweeteners listed, calmly put it back on the shelf. Avoid sugar, cane sugar, cane juice, dextrose, corn syrup, fruit juice, agave, molasses, etc, which spike blood sugar and destabilize metabolism. Especially avoid “sugar” which means GMO beet sugar. The only sweeteners I’ll accept are chicory root and Lo Han Guo.
  2. If you see “Natural flavors” take a deep breath and put it back on the shelf. This is a sordid class of some harmless, and some terribly toxic ingredients, such as genetically modified MSG, Hydrolyzed vegetable protein, and GMO soy sauce, associated with migraines and infertility. Since we can’t know what they are, it is best to avoid them all. See my article Beware of “Natural Flavors”.
  3. If there are additives or preservatives listed on the label, smile and put it back on the shelf. The most common are BHA, BHT, sodium nitrite, sodium nitrate, sodium benzoate, ammonium sulfate, artificial colors. These chemicals have been linked to many health symptoms from depression to cancer.
  4. If wheat is listed, put it back on the shelf. Most people are intolerant to the modern genetic version of wheat and wheat gluten, however there are a few individual exceptions.
  5. Look for a label that says 100% organic. Unfortunately the simple label “organic” allows 5% GMO ingredients. Especially avoid anything labeled “Made with organic ingredients”, which can  contain up to 30% GMO’s! No kidding!
  6. Check for direct GMO ingredients, such as soy, corn, canola, papaya, zucchini, apple, potato, papaya. If you find them, simply put it back. If the manufacturer is using non-GMO ingredients, they’ll mention that as a selling point on the label. If they don’t, you can assume it is GMO. For a list of direct GMO ingredients, see my article: Avoiding GMO’s? Here’s a Guide.
  7. Avoid indirect GMO-fed ingredients, and know that all meat, eggs, dairy, chicken, and fish are fed GMO grains unless they are clearly labeled Non-GMO, Organic, or Grass-fed-Grass finished, or Pastured-Organic. Most animal products will go back on the grocery shelf, not in your shopping cart.
  8. Know that not all ingredients are listed on the label. Any ingredient that represents less than 0.5 grams per serving size is not required to be listed. (That’s why buying packaged food is a bit like Russian roulette!)

Step 3: If your food passes the RED FLAG ingredient check, and you want it, BUY IT! It’s that simple.

nutrition labels-image

“The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.” ~ Sun Tzu


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Understanding Food Nutrition Labels

Dietary Guidelines For Americans

New F.D.A. Nutrition Labels Would Make ‘Serving Sizes’ Reflect Actual Servings

How to Read a Nutrition Label

Food Safety News: Five Things Sugar Interests Get Wrong About FDA Added Sugars Labeling

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Food Health Claims: Honest or Deceptive?

There’s No Such Thing as a Calorie to your Body

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