Great news, focusing on a plant-based diet means you’ll likely be minimizing processed foods, and the majority of what you eat won’t have labels! For the remaining packaged products you do purchase, I’m sharing a few quick tips for label scans on your grocery trips. These pointers will aid in selecting minimally processed foods, free from animal products and unnecessary additives.
1. Ignore all marketing claims on the front of the package.
This is the golden rule of label reading, and for good reason. As I mentioned in my post, Eating for Nourishment… My Food Story, I fell prey to the “fat-free,” “zero calorie,” and “natural” marketing traps in the past, with no benefit to my health.
We don’t have time to sift through the carefully crafted word games. Flip that box, bag or can to the Nutrition Facts and Ingredients list. This is where you should focus all your attention.
2. Look for the “contains” section at the bottom of the Ingredients list.
Hopefully when you are looking at an ingredients list you will be able to count the ingredients on your hands, and it won’t be too overwhelming. A quick way to decide if the list is worth reading is shooting down to the bottom.
Many ingredients lists are immediately followed by a bold list of the allergens the product contains. This will include, but is not limited to milk, egg and fish. This glance is a quick hack to decipher if you should read on, or if the package should go back on the shelf.
3. Check for hidden animal product ingredients.
Below are common animal product ingredients added to processed foods. Packaging can be sneaky… keep an eye out for these during your search.
Dairy – Some foods may be labeled “lactose” free, but still contain the animal protein casein. Aside from milk and dairy, other common component names to avoid are lactose, casein, whey and nougat. For an in-depth guide to avoiding dairy visit godairyfree.org.
Gelatin – marshmallows, fruit snacks, frosted cereals, and supplements often contain gelatin.
Fish Oil – Fish oil is particularly found in many foods, vitamins or supplements that contain omega-3 fatty acids.
4. Look for unnecessary additives.
Take peanut butter for example, seems pretty standard, but it can be difficult to find an ingredients list that simply contains: peanuts. It DOES exist though, so it’s worth flipping that container around and making sure you aren’t also purchasing added salt, oils, or sweeteners.
Checking for added sodium, sugars and fats is important when reading food labels. These can also sneak onto the ingredients list unrecognized. Check out Sugar Science for the full list of 61 names for sugar. Look for products with minimal or no added oils.
Ingredients are listed in order by predominance, so if you are purchasing something with one of these added ingredients, look for products where they fall towards the end of the list.
5. Read the Nutrition Facts
Once you’ve done your ingredients scan, and you’ve found that the food in your food is a fit, head on up to the Nutrition aFcts.
Find the serving size, and sure you are mentally aligned with what the nutrition information displays in relation to the portions the package contains. It may sound like a no brainer but make sure you are aware of the nutrients you are putting in your body!
When it comes to food with labels, less is more. This goes both for the quantity of packaged foods you consume in general, and for the amount of ingredients in those packaged foods. If you have any other favorite label reading hacks, please share!