Admittedly, I’m a food snob (Julie here). Despite of this, it surprises some people that I don’t shop often at Whole Foods. Most of my grocery needs are met at Kroger.
Here are a few tips for label reading to help you navigate the tricky waters of “what is healthy?” I have a few guidelines followed by pictures of examples.
- Buy the product with fewest ingredients – strive for five ingredients or less.
- Can you pronounce the ingredients? If you stumble to get the words out, maybe you should put it back.
- Are those ingredients man made (chemicals) or made by God?
- Choose the product with least amount of sugar (be careful not to buy food with artificial sweeteners.)
Foods I try not to buy:
- Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs). The dominant ones are corn, soy, and sugar (beets in the form of white sugar — see picture at bottom of this post). If I want to use corn, say in the form in corn chips or corn tortillas, I buy organic. When the label says organic, you can trust that GMOs have not been used.
- Anything with soy or soy derivative because of all the reasons mentioned here. Soy is avoided at all costs in my kitchen. There is an exception to this rule for soy sauce or miso because I buy fermented and even then we don’t use huge amounts.
- Anything with artificial sweeteners.
- Foods with monosodium glutamate, MSG or one of its many pseudonyms like autolyzed yeast, carrageenan, or “natural flavors”.
These are meant to be guidelines. The overarching rule for food that I live by is The 80/20 Rule. Eighty percent of the time I am diligent to eat whole, real food. But also, I know that I live in a modern world so twenty percent of the time I will eat less than stellar. Gotta give yourself grace.
Sour Cream – Kroger has a billion options for sour cream. If you read the labels, its an easy decision.
The below sour cream is labeled “original” and has 3 pseudonyms for monosodium glutamate (guar gum, carrageenan, and locust bean gum.)
The next label is “fat free.” Run like the wind from fat free anything unless it’s a carrot. In order for something to taste good it needs fat. If the fat has been extracted from a product it has been manipulated in some other way…usually by adding all kinds of chemicals that I can’t pronounce: evidence below.
The label uses the descriptor “natural” which usually means nothing at all. However in the case of Kroger sour cream, it’s the best.
Ingredients: cultured cream and skim milk, enzymes.
Some times cost is a factor. The example below is cream cheese. Both have 5 ingredients. One is the national brand and cost $2.50. The other is store brand and was $1 less. The ingredients were similar enough to me, so I bought the cheaper store brand.
The next example is peanut butter. Compare fats and sugar. Skippy (on the left) has 1 less gram of sugar but the first ingredient is called “peanut butter spread” which isn’t exactly peanut butter. Peanuts have been added to palm oil (which isn’t inherently bad) and peanut oil. What’s wrong with just grinding up peanuts? I wouldn’t buy either of these brands.
If your family can’t switch yet to natural peanut butter, Kroger’s organic peanut butter is a good option. It has 4 ingredients. It looks and tastes like the above peanut butters — with less sugar. However it is more expensive. Peanuts are highly sprayed with anti-fungals. When it comes to peanut butter, I think it is wise to buy organic if you can swing it financially.
In the beginning of this article, I mentioned that white sugar is a very common GMO (along with corn and soy). When I buy white sugar, I am looking for the words CANE SUGAR. Domino brand (yellow label, below) is made from cane sugar. The store brand sugar is made from GMO sugar beets. The cost difference for 4 pounds is only about $0.50. In my mind, this is definitely worth it.
Michael Pollan says, “We vote 3 times a day with our fork.” Send a message to the food industry with your dollars. Read labels. Strive for five ingredients or less and with words you can pronounce.
3 thoughts on “Shop Smarter: Tips for Reading Labels”
This is a great article. Thank you for making something that seems so overwhelming easy to understand.
Liked your article, but have a suggestion for you. I cannot do any soy due to allergies. I use Aminos. Is made from coconut tree sap but does not taste like coconuts and has less sodium than soy sauce. They have Aminos at Krogers but it is made from soy! Don’t ask me to explain – I don’t understand. I buy mine at Earthfare or thru Thrive Market on internet. It is Coconut Secret brand. Haven’t looked for alternative to Mizo.