When it comes to making healthy food choices, the ingredients list is one of the best tools you have at your disposal. Unfortunately, many people don’t read the ingredients, forget to, and miss out on key information when reading food labels. So, here are 4 important reasons to read the ingredient list on everything you buy so you can be sure you are making the very best choice you possibly can.
I constantly talk about the importance of reading the ingredient list, and yet, every day people fail to do so. People opt for items they think are healthy choices only to later realize that they were duped by good marketing and labeling. The good news is, you don’t need to be an expert to read an ingredient list, it’s actually very simple, you simply need to make sure you do it.
1. The Front of a Package Tells you Nothing
Although it is full of pretty text, images, and colors, the front of a box, package, or bag doesn’t tell you much about what is in it. Yes, it may tell you what it is, but unless you dig deeper than the front of a label you can easily get duped into thinking you are making a healthier choice than you actually are. Food labels are littered with marketing buzzwords that honestly don’t mean much unless you know what the actual ingredients are. Something may be labeled “high in protein”, “rich in fiber” or “gluten-free” but those same products may contain added sugars, additives, and preservatives making them a less-than-ideal choice. For instance, many “healthy” yogurts are labeled as all-natural, high-protein, rich in probiotics, and contain more sugar than your average chocolate bar, but you wouldn’t know this if you didn’t read the ingredients. If anything, the front of a package is just an advertisement, so take it with a grain of salt.
2. The Nutrition Facts are Contextual
The nutrition facts panel is the little box of numbers and percentages found on the back of any packaged food product, and although is relevant, it’s only truly relevant if you know the source of these nutrients, which are the ingredients. I know people love to look at the numbers; how many grams of protein, how many grams of carbs, and how much of your daily vitamins and minerals, BUT, if you don’t know the source of those grams of protein, grams of carbs, vitamins and minerals you missing the point. Just because something is high in protein does not mean it is a healthy choice, and just because something is low in carbs also does not mean it is a healthy choice. The numbers and percentages listed are only relevant if the ingredients in that product are from whole foods, not if they are coming from ultra-processed food sources that are devoid of their own nutrients. It’s easy to make an item high protein or low carb by manipulating the ingredients in it, the same way it’s easy to increase the vitamin and mineral content of a food by adding fortified versions, however, they will never be as good for you or work as well as a whole food version of it. So, you can certainly look at the nutrition facts, but you need to make sure you read the ingredients first.
3. Ingredients are More Important than Calories
Don’t get me wrong, calories are important, but understanding the source of the calories you are consuming is arguably just as important, if not more. People are obsessed with calories when, in reality, we should be obsessed with ingredients. It is important to understand that not all calories are created equal and the source of the calorie matters far more than the number. You can make any food low in calories by processing the life out of it and filling it with additives and preservatives, but that doesn’t mean it’s good for you. The purpose of eating is to seek nutrients, not avoid calories, and if you focus on the ingredients over the numbers, you can do exactly that.
4. Ignorance is Not Bliss
Not reading the ingredient list is not taking an active role in your own health, and failing to do so makes you part of the problem. Yes, it is incredibly frustrating that food manufacturers are sneaky and lead us to believe that things are healthier than they seem, however, by not reading the ingredient list on the items you buy you are perpetuating the cycle. Every time that you buy something at the grocery store you are voting with your dollars and by purchasing processed foods you are voting to make more of them. Purchasing power is real, and if you only spend your money on items you believe in you are forcing manufacturers to produce better options. There is nothing wrong with buying pre-made or pre-packaged food items, in fact, there are lots of healthy options available, you simply want to ensure that the items you are choosing are made with ingredients from whole foods.
The Bottom Line
The ingredient list is the single best tool at your disposal to determine if a food product is a good choice or not. In fact, it is the only way to determine if the item is made of real food or if it contains added sugars, vegetable oils, and additives. So, every time that you buy something at the grocery store; read the ingredients. It doesn’t matter if you are buying yogurt, tomato sauce, or hummus, reading the ingredient list is the most powerful nutrition tool you have.