The fastest way to read a food label to tell whether it’s healthy.

When you’re just getting started with a more natural way of way of eating, the grocery store can suddenly seem like an unfamiliar landscape. What’s good to eat? What’s not? It’s actually really easy to figure that out, once you know what to ignore.

First of all, give no heed to all those feel-good buzzwords with no strict legal definition. There’s no USDA-approved list of “superfoods,” for instance.

And if you know anyone who thinks that tub of “homemade vanilla” ice cream was made in somebody’s home, you could probably also convince them that the French vanilla sitting next to it on the freezer shelf was flown in from Criquebeuf-en-Caux.*

Speaking of lovely places, you may wonder where, exactly, is Nature Valley? Nowhere. Except maybe in the minds of parent company General Mills, which boasts that the brand pioneered the granola bar and helped make snacking a way of life in the early 1970s. (Um, thanks?) By the way, the food giant  has been sued multiple times for presenting its ultra-processed line of sugary snacks as “natural.” In August 2018, General Mills agreed to remove “100% natural” from Nature Valley labels in response to a lawsuit regarding the glyphosphate — that’s the deadly chemical used in the pesticide RoundUp — found in the product.

OK, Big Food dialing back on questionable marketing practices — that is promising. But it’s not like there’s any law that General Mills clearly broke. In fact, they deny that they did anything wrong at all. After they settled out of court, a company spokesperson called the lawsuit a “distraction,” and defended the “accuracy” of the “100% natural” labeling.

Next, know that there is a fixed set of terms that are legally defined in the U.S. When you see that a food is “free” of some attribute (fat or sugar, say), it means that a serving has less of it than the label needs to report. (Ah, but how big is a serving? Small enough to make this claim true.) If it’s “reduced,” it has less of whatever it’s bragging about having reduced than you would usually expect. And so on — there’s a whole tangled web of this sort of thing.

But here’s the rub.  By now you may be getting used to the idea that many well-known health claims — especially those made by official organs like the USDA and the American Heart Association — aren’t based on today’s best scientific knowledge. So just because a label is boasting about what’s not in the box, or what the box is fortified with, that doesn’t tell you whether this is a box you want.

Fortunately, there’s an easy way to look at any label quickly and know, with a high degree of confidence, whether that food is worth taking home with you. There are a few false positives and false negatives with this method. But it’s fast and pretty darn reliable.

The method is just this.

  1. ALWAYS read the ingredient list.
  2. ONLY buy items with short lists.
  3. Avoid items with ingredients you don’t think you’d find in anyone’s kitchen anywhere in the world 150 years ago.

Extra tip:
The formatting, right down to the font and what has to be bold, is all regulated by law. This makes it very easy to find this info once you’ve spotted it a time or two. 

Don’t confuse the “Ingredients” with the “Nutrition Facts,” — a table showing protein, sugars, vitamins, and so forth. “Ingredients” is always just a list strung together with commas.

For example, let’s say you want sour cream. You might be used to thinking fat free is the healthiest choice. So, let’s read a label!

These are the ingredients in one brand of typical fat-free sour cream:

INGREDIENTS: Cultured Nonfat Milk, Food Starch-Modified (Corn), contains less than 2% of: Whey, Cream*, Artificial Color**, Propylene Glycol Monoester*, Sodium Hexametaphosphate, Agar, Xanthan Gum, Cellulose Gel, Locust Bean Gum, Cellulose Gum, Natural Flavor, Vitamin A Palmitate, Enzyme.

What is all that? And why is there artificial color in the sour cream? What color would it be if they didn’t put artificial color in it?

“Light” sounds like a lovely quality. Let’s try that instead. Label, please! Here’s Kemp’s Light Sour Cream.


INGREDIENTS:CULTURED PASTEURIZED GRADE A SKIM MILK AND CREAM, CONTAINS LESS THAN 2% OF CORN STARCH-MODIFIED, WHEY, GUAR GUM, SODIUM CITRATE, CARRAGEENAN, CAROB BEAN GUM, VITAMIN A PALMITATE, POTASSIUM SORBATE (TO MAINTAIN FRESHNESS).

Not terrifically tasty sounding. But notice what it has a lot more of? Cream! Close to half of this could potentially be cream. The fat-free sour cream had less than 2% cream. Considering that the item’s name is “sour cream,” that seems important. Also, notice what’s missing: Artificial color.

So this is looking promising. Anywhere from 3% to 49% percent of this product could be the thing that it’s name. 

Come to think of it, when I put it that way, that doesn’t sound so good.

Well! On to good old regular sour cream. But here’s what the ingredients look like on a lot of regular sour cream labels.

INGREDIENTS: CULTURED PASTEURIZED LIGHT CREAM, NONFAT MILK AND ENZYMES.

Meantime, Daisy and Kemp’s say only this:

INGREDIENTS: CULTURED CREAM.


Bingo!

OK, all you other guys, like Breakstone, Hood, Great Value — was that really so hard? It’s cream. You make it sour. Not too sour. Just enough to be fantastic. What’s the nonfat milk in there for? It sounds to me like you guys are cheating.

And so! I hope you found that to be pretty easy. Notice that you didn’t need to read and research a bunch of ingredients.

It turned out that it didn’t matter what the sodium hexametaphosphate was accomplishing in the nonfat sour cream. Or how any of that other goo was contributing to the illustion of sour cream.

All you needed to do was pick up containers and glance at the ingredients until you found the shortest and least weird list available.

Bam!

A word about false positives of yuckiness. Carageenan and agar may sound like lab creations, but they are venerable sea vegetables. Part of the traditional pre-potato Irish diet. Nevertheless, here they do not belong. They just make the list longer. And therefore they’re not desirable for the purposes of choosing the most wholesome sour cream. 

By the way, agar and carageenan are used to thicken liquids. Wouldn’t sour cream that’s wonderful be thick just by its very nature? Why would it even be liquidy?

So you’re right to look for the package that doesn’t have them.

And that’s the simple way to start finding healthier products in the supermarket. Just pick up the package, look for “Ingredients,” and scan them. If the list is too long to grasp easily, just put it down. Put it down! Move on. 

I guarantee you, there are more delicious things to eat.

* It’s in France. That’s all there is to the joke.

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