5 Steps to Effective Label Reading

What say we all became pros at understanding food labels and picking the products that best fit our requirements? Here is my contribution to empowering the consumer!

Before going anywhere near a supermarket though, you need to first understand what your requirements are from the products you wish to buy. While I’ve set out the tips below with diabetics as the prime target, this post will be a useful base for anyone seeking to understand labels and keep tabs on their carb and sugar intake.

If you have other requirements such as gluten-free, soy-free, nut-free, fat-free, dairy-free, vegan etc, then you’ll need to incorporate further checks into the 5 steps below.

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Ok, so you’re at the supermarket and you’ve picked up a product. Now, what do you do?

1: IGNORE Advertising Lingo

First, ignore all the catchy phrases sprinkled all over the packaging. Whether it says “lite”, “good for you”, “no added sugar”, “diabetic-friendly”, “heart healthy”, “suitable for dieters”, remember it’s all advertising. These words do not tell you anything of value. So even if you pick up a product because the packaging called out to you with sugar-free or low cal signs, ensure that you then follow the rest of the label-reading steps to find out if the product actually meets your requirements.

2: SCAN Ingredients List

Start your label-reading by scanning the list of ingredients. Manufacturers are required to list ingredients in decreasing order of the percentage in which those ingredients occur in the product. So if you see sugar as the first ingredient (e.g. kid’s chocolate drink powders), then you should put the product back on the shelf! Check my post on Know your Sweeteners Better to see what sorts of ingredients you need to look out for.

Another point to note while scanning ingredients is that preservatives, artificial colours and flavours are usually listed at the end and sometimes are listed as codes – a combination of alphabets and numbers. Try to limit your consumption of such products to the bare minimum necessary. Why burden your liver with the additional clean-up work?

3: CONFIRM Serving Size

Most products will provide you a typical serving size. You need to check this information because the nutritional table that comes next usually lists the total calories, carbs, fats, etc per serving. You need to confirm that your usual serving size is approximately the same as their listed one. So if you normally eat four tablespoons of peanut butter at a time instead of the two-tablespoon serving they suggest, then you can expect to get double the amounts they’ve listed.

Some products just provide the nutritional information per 100 grams instead. In that case you will need to estimate how much you will consume each time and take note of the values accordingly.

4: INVESTIGATE Nutritional Table

Read the nutritional table carefully. First, take a look at the amount of Total Sugars per serving. If this is more than 5g then you should ideally try another brand or consider doing without.

Then check the Total Carbohydrates as well as the Calories per serving. There are no magic numbers here — you just need to be aware of this so that when you are consuming that product you have a rough idea of how much it is contributing to your daily calorie intake. In a future post I’ll address carbohydrate intake management, so stay tuned for more on carbs.

To finish off, take a look at the Total Fats per serving. It is important to ensure that you do not burden your system with excess fat (especially saturated or trans fats). This keeps your cholesterol levels under control, which is very important if you are diabetic or are at risk for heart disease.

5: BEWARE Asterisks*

If you encounter an asterisk or similar symbol next to an ingredient or a nutrient, then find the key (usually at the bottom in smaller print) and read it. Often manufactures use asterisks to get away with incomplete information that can be misleading. For instance, I only recently discovered that the Sugars** in the Nutritional Table for my “No Added Sugar” cereal only provided the amount of sugar as sucrose (not fructose, maltose, etc) and therefore it did not provide the Total Sugars as I expected it to. It was this somewhat unsettling discovery that led me down the path of decoding labels.

Once you’ve completed all these steps you’ve really read the label. All done? Well, there’s one last thing you need to do: make a decision. You need to take a call as to whether the product mostly fits your requirements or not. If you decide that it passes the test, then make a mental note of the product and that’s one less label you have to read the next time you shop!

Do you have any pointers for label reading? Please share it in the comments below. Meanwhile, happy shopping and happy reading!

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