How to read food labels

Special guest blog post by Yvette d’Entremont — better known as SciBabe. Her popular website debunks pseudoscience with a humorous bent. Food myths are a common theme she deals with on the site. You can catch Yvette speak in London, ON this month, at Grain Farmers of Ontario’s March Classic conference.


When you pick up a package of any food product, it has a series of labels on it telling you why this needs to be in your pantry now. Fair Trade. Farm fresh. Natural. Non-GMO. Local. High Fiber. No sugar added. Phytonutrientenergy. WHAT DOES ANY OF THIS MEAN?! Let’s start with the front of the label and work our way back.

Fair Trade

This means that, hopefully, a larger amount is paid, ensuring that the workers in developing nations receive a fair wage, and the products are produced ethically and sustainably. In a lot of cases this is true, but it’s hard to ensure that the money doesn’t go straight to the top of the business (that’s sometimes located in the US for the base of operations) as opposed to the farmers who you’re led to believe is benefitting from the money. There’s a lack of evidence that ‘Fair Trade’ farmers are receiving the extra money, but hopefully that will be better assessed.

Farm Fresh

This is one that you’ll see commonly on eggs, and it means absolutely nothing. There’s no time limit to declare that they’re still fresh (hint: there’s probably an expiration date, but no “this came out of a chicken on this date” label). It’s a meaningless label to make you think these eggs are… who knows, blessed by a unicorn and sprinkled with glitter in a meadow?

Pasteurized

Pasteurized means that the product, generally milk, has been heated to a very high temperature for a very short period of time. This kills a majority of the harmful bacteria, allowing the milk to stay safe for consumption longer. Regular pasteurization means the milk was heated to 72 °C for 15 seconds. Ultra pasteurization, labeled UHT, is heated to 140 °C for 4 seconds, and can allow the product a much longer shelf life.

Fresh

This generally means that the food has not been thermally treated, either through cooking or freezing. The only legal exception to this is pasteurization (given that it doesn’t “cook” the product). However, it should be taken into account that “fresh” doesn’t mean better or healthier. The terms “freshly frozen” and “frozen fresh” are interchangeable, and they generally mean that a food was frozen immediately upon being picked, so the nutrient profile was preserved. Conversely, “fresh” produce that’s possibly a week out from being picked has had time for the nutrients to break down. For both the money and the nutritional content, frozen fruits and vegetables are a nutritional powerhouse.

Organic

This does not mean pesticide free, chemical free, or healthier. In most cases, just means that a certain class of pesticides, derived from natural sources, were used. In many cases, these pesticides are more toxic and have to be sprayed more often than the synthetic pesticides. At this point, we do not have research that shows organic to be healthier than their conventionally grown counterparts.

Non-GMO

What we think of as a GMO is when a scientist in a laboratory goes into the genetic makeup of the crop and directly alters a few genes. However, every single crop we see has been altered from nature. Kale, broccoli, lettuce, bananas, seedless watermelon, ruby red grapefruit? They’ve all been drastically genetically manipulated from what’s occurred in nature, sometimes using radiation and similar types of breeding to what we label ‘GMOs.’ A label that says “non-GMO” simply means that there was no genetic manipulation specifically done in a lab, a process that’s been scientifically shown over and over to be safe. It doesn’t mean it’s nutritionally more dense, less allergenic, or in any way healthier.

Low Fat

In order to qualify to be labeled low fat, a product must be at or below 3g of fat per 100g of solid food, or 1.5g fat per 100mL of liquid. If you’re trying to follow a reduced fat diet because of certain health conditions (pancreatitis and gall bladder issues), this is a label to pay attention to. However, it doesn’t necessarily mean ‘healthy.’

Lite/Light

This generally means one major macronutrient has been reduced by 30% from the original product (i.e. you’ll also see a label that says ‘30% reduced calories/sugar/fat). But note, they have to find a way to make up the flavor, and so even if they’re reduced the fat, the overall calories may not have dropped if the sugar content has risen in the new formulation.

No Added Sugar

This generally just means that refined sugar or sweeteners were not added to the product, but it doesn’t mean that the diabetic in the family can dive right in without the insulin handy. Other sources of sweetness, like fruit or fruit juice, can be added, and it may still just as calorically dense as if they added sugar.


Those are a lot of things you see on the front of a food label to sell the product. Now let’s take a look at the back of the label, the nutritional content information.

Serving size

Some packages also tell you servings per package. This is important to remember because what if you buy a bag of, for example, veggie chips, something that seems healthy at first glance because the label says it’s natural, organic, and non-GMO, the calorie content per serving doesn’t seem that high and you keep eating and keep eating… and then you eat eight servings of it. 130 calories times eight adds up. Pay attention to servings per package.

Calories

A calorie is a unit of energy. They come in the form of the three macronutrients: fat, carbs, and protein. They’re not the enemy, but they do need to be balanced according to your metabolism and how active you are. Calories also don’t tell the whole story about the food.

Fat, Carbohydrates, and Protein

These are is the three macronutrients and they are used for a lot of different purposes in the body. Fats and carbohydrates are commonly thought of as used for energy, but they also both play unique and vital roles in other functions in the body. Fats are utilized for vitamin absorption, and some fats stabilize cholesterol levels (specifically monounsaturated fats, found in canola and olive oils). Carbohydrates are our most readily available (and easily burning) energy source, and sugars are a form of a simple carbohydrate. Protein is the building block of muscle growth and repair, and your need for each of these depends on your activity level and resting metabolic rate. Fats used to get a bad reputation because of the three of these they had the highest caloric load per gram (1g of fat = 9 calories, 1g of carbohydrates = 4 calories, 1 g of protein = 4 calories), but we’ve since learned that all things in balance and moderation are part of a necessary and healthy diet.

Vitamins

Humans need these organic chemical compounds in very small doses to survive, and we do not manufacture these on naturally from smaller building blocks in our own bodies. In general, if you’re eating a varied and healthy diet rich with fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and sufficient protein, you will easily meet your recommended vitamin needs without worrying too much about this from day to day.

So does this demystify everything on a package? It’s a start until they come up with something new. Kale enriched unicorn organic. Biodynamic beaver dam irrigated certified paleo. Moonlight aged massaged cow tongue. But for now, this guide to read food labels should get you through the grocery aisle.

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