By Dr. Miranda Graham | The Vegan MD
The healthiest food you can get will always be from the produce section at your local grocery store or farmer’s market. However, in the era of high-stress jobs and familial responsibilities that don’t always leave time to make everything yourself from scratch, learning how to properly read food labels to make sure that you are making the best choices out of what is available to you is a must.
Whatever diet you choose to follow, remember to always read the label and packaging whenever you buy anything from the store. This is especially important for those of us who follow a plant-based diet, and more-so when on a whole food, plant-based diet.
These are a few questions you should be asking yourself before purchasing any packaged food.
CLUES TO KNOW HOW PROCESSED A PRODUCT IS
How many ingredients are there?
Heading over to take a look at the list of ingredients may seem like a waste of time if something already says that it is vegetarian or vegan. Please, do not assume that this is healthy without reading all of the ingredients.
Most of the time, products that have many ingredients are very processed; the fiber is removed, they are fortified with folic acid, they have vitamins added to them such as non-vegan sourced vitamins such as vitamin D3.
A good rule of thumb: The fewer amount of ingredients, the better.
How many grams of fiber are there vs total carbohydrate content?
If you see in the ingredients “bleached wheat flour” just think “they took out the fiber”.
1 cup of white wheat flour has only 3.4 grams of dietary fiber (of its 95.4 g of total carbohydrate), giving a carb to fiber ratio of 28.05 when the ideal ratio is under 10. Let's compare bleached flour to whole-grain wheat flour which has 14.6 g of dietary fiber for 87.1 g total carbohydrate, giving a ratio of about 6. Some articles indicate that it is even more beneficial to looks for foods with a fiber ratio of 5 or under. (1, 2, 3)
If you see high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), just say no and put it back on the shelf. HFCS is a sweetener made from highly concentrated fructose extracted from corn. How about eating corn on the cob, instead?
How much sodium does it contain?
Eating canned beans instead of getting them dry and cooking them can be fine as long as they aren’t jam-packing the cans with salt. Try to go for products that have no added salt and if this is not possible, then look for the low-sodium versions.
Sodium, whether it comes from iodized salt, sea salt or the beautiful pink Himalayan salt, contributes to cardiovascular disease. While some sodium in the diet is absolutely necessary, in our modern world it is way too easy to over-do it.
What is the serving size?
Look at the serving size and ask yourself why it is so small or why there are so many servings in one package of food. Remember to take the amount of whatever you are looking into (such as sugar or salt) and to multiply that number by the number of servings in the package.
Too many people tend to just glance at the amount of fat or carbohydrates on the label without taking the portion size into consideration.
How many calories from saturated fat are there?
Excessive saturated fat consumption contributes to increased LDL levels in the blood as well as cardiovascular disease and has been associated with other conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease, Multiple Sclerosis, and type 2 Diabetes.
The American Heart Association recommends limiting saturated fat intake to 5-6% of our calories. This means that if you eat around 2000 calories each day, you should be eating around no more than 11-13 grams.
Does it contain coconut oil?
Thanks to the heavy propaganda by the coconut industry, vegan products are frequently made with coconut oil, even though it is about 92% saturated fat and I consider avoiding consuming it.
Does it have cholesterol?
Cholesterol is produced by animals, including ourselves, and not by plants. This means that if you ever see any cholesterol in something that you are buying, then it is not vegan. Even if you were not able to identify any of the non-vegan ingredients, I suggest avoiding it and staying on the safe side.
Does it have trans fat?
Trans fatty acids in nature are only found in animal products. They can also be found in packaged foods, though thankfully laws in the United States are changing and this is becoming a little harder to come by.
Even if a product has trans fat, if it has less than 0.5 grams of trans fat per serving, then it can legally be labeled as “trans fat-free”. Have you ever wondered why the portion sizes can be so small? A clue to look for in the list of ingredients is either hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oils. Liquid vegetable oils go through a process of hydrogenation, in which hydrogen molecules are added on to the carbon chain of unsaturated fatty acids so that the product becomes solid.
Trans fat has been shown to have detrimental health consequences such as increased levels of LDL and contributing to heart disease. Optimal consumption of trans fatty acids is zero grams per day. (4)
What about the polyunsaturated fat?
Often we look at nutrition labels and we see that a lot of the fat in the product comes from polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) and assume that it is okay because it is the “good fat” without considering that some are better than others. The fats that everyone knows as "omegas" actually fall under the category of PUFAs and are what we need to look out for to maintain a good omega 6-3 ratio to contribute to heart and brain health.
Look to increase your consumption of foods rich in omega 3 fatty acids and to decrease your intake of omega 6 fatty acids. Having a ratio of omega-6’s to omega-3‘s of 4 or less is considered good, and a ratio of 1 is considered ideal.
For certain products, the breakdown of the PUFA’s will not be available directly on the label. That is when you need to look back at the ingredient list for clues.
Foods high in omega-3’s are flaxseeds, chia seeds, walnuts, hemp seeds and even canola oil. Ingredients rich in omega-6’s (that you may want to stay away from) are mostly from refined oils such as soybean oil, safflower oil, and corn oil.
Dr. Miranda Graham is a plant-based physician from San José, Costa Rica and the co-founder of the largest vegan parenting group on facebook, Vegan Pregnancy and Parenting.
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1. Nutrient data for this was provided by the USDA.
2. J K Schmier, P E Miller, J A Levine, V Perez, K C Maki, T M Rains, L Devareddy, L M Sanders, D D Alexander. Cost savings of reduced constipation rates attributed to increased dietary fiber intakes: a decision-analytic model. BMC Public Health. 2014 Apr 17;14:374.