I have been a label reader my entire adult life. I can’t remember the last time I bought a packaged food that I didn’t pick up and read the ingredients or the nutrition facts. In fact, I probably haven’t! I like to know things. I like to know what I am putting into my body. However, my label reading has evolved over the past 15 years. The first few years I would strictly look at the nutrition label. I would immediately hone in on the “fat grams” like a laser beam. I remember as a tween and teen my mother always being concerned about how many “fat grams” something had. I didn’t really know why, except that it was bad for me and, heck, they were called “fat grams” which really led me to believe the more of them I ate, the more fat I would be. So, my goal as a teen was to find boxed foods that were “low fat” or even better yet, “fat free!” If it made that claim, it immediately got my attention. If it were low fat, or fat free, and included some type of chocolate flavor – I pretty much had to have it.
The next step in my label evolution still involved “fat grams” but since I now was more educated (or so I thought,) I started not really caring about how many fat grams were in a food item, but how many saturated fat grams were in it. Somewhere I heard that saturated fat grams were indeed the devil. So, I started to worry less about just plain ole’ fat grams, and starting focusing my hatred towards saturated fat. This meant butter was no longer allowed in my fridge. Butter and I were just not meant to be together despite my love for it in my great-grammies homemade mashed potatoes. I started replacing butter with margarine with low saturated fat, thinking I was doing myself a favor. Oops.
I then moved away from fat grams altogether. As I was trying to lose post-pregnancy weight, I discovered that fat grams were not as important as overall caloric intake. I learned that calories in minus calories burned equaled excess calories which then turned into fat. This is true, however I do believe now that our bodies do not treat all calories alike and depending on what foods are consumed, our bodies can burn them more efficiently and therefore an increase in calories won’t result in weight gain in most circumstances (more on that another time.) Back to calories. The calorie was something to be feared. I could not buy a food in good conscience if it had in excessive calories. I had no concern as to what was making up the calories (good healthy fats vs. refined grains & sugars) just as long as it didn’t have a lot of them. So, my grocery cart was filled with items like “100 calorie snacks!” At this point in my life I still wasn’t even looking at the actual ingredients in the foods, I was just looking at calories. This is where I was so wrong. This belief allows the food industry to tailor their marketing in such a way that people will simply buy it because it states “100 calorie snack” and has a picture of something that looks like it should have way more than 100 calories. If you ask me, the picture on the box should have a disclaimer *item in package is much smaller than it appears* Talk about a let-down when you open a bag of 100 calorie mini oreo cookies and your realize there are only 3. I could talk all night about the deceptive marketing schemes but I will save that rant for another time.
Now, as I grew in knowledge (learning about the negative effects of High Fructose Corn Syrup through my son’s issues) of the actual ingredients in the packaged foods I was buying, I started to stop reading just the nutritional labels for caloric amounts but also the ingredient list. This made the task of grocery shopping REALLY LONG and frustrating. Just about everything has corn syrup in it, especially 7 years ago when this all began. Now, finding foods without corn syrup and low in calories was pretty much impossible so eating became pretty miserable for me. Eating was something I had to do to live, but not something I really wanted to do because no matter what I ate (within the allotted calories per day that I “allowed” myself) I was still hungry and unsatisfied. What I really needed was peanut butter. Peanut butter makes everything better, right? That probably would have made me a much happier person but alas, the calories in peanut butter are astronomical and most peanut butters have – you guessed it – corn syrup!
As the evolution continued, I learned about the evils of trans fat aka: partially hydrogenated oil. Eeeekkkk! I was told about this by a friend long before trans fat was even a recognized issue by the culture. Now, scared for me and my family’s life, I had to find foods that didn’t have corn syrup OR partially hydrogenated oil or a lot of calories. Talk about MISSION IMPOSSIBLE. I just wanted to throw my hands up and surrender to the attack of packaged foods.
So, I lived this way for about the past 5 years. Reading nutrition labels, focusing on calories and whether the item had (or didn’t have) corn syrup and partially hydrogenated oils. If a food met these criteria, I figured it was “healthy.” Other things became important through the years as well — for a year or so I really was concerned about carbohydrates because I jumped on the “low carb” train for awhile until I was derailed by delicious bread and cakes. Also, once I added carbs back into my diet, I tried to make sure the grains were at least whole grains rather than enriched, bleached flours.
So many rules. My diet consisted of so many rules. I wasn’t even sure why I was following all these rules except that I thought it was the best for the health of me and my family. It certainly stole my joy of food.
Fast forward to my new approach to eating – the way that is so much simpler yet alluded me for so many years.
I still read labels but there are far fewer labels to read because I try to purchase as few pre-packaged items as possible. When I do buy packaged items I still make sure they are free of trans fat and corn syrup. I look for whole grains and I steer away from any ingredients I can’t pronounce or define. Additionally, there are many NEW labels that are on pre-packaged and whole foods that can be confusing and misleading and in some cases, meaningless. I pay attention to these labels because some of them are important. For example, do you know the significance of the following…
- Fair Trade
- 100% Organic
- Made with Organic Ingredients
Which of these are the most confusing to you? Did you know that the term “natural” is not regulated by the FDA? Did you know that anyone can say something is “doctor recommended?”