Making Sense of Food Labels

anti-inflammatory lifestyle Jun 23, 2024


While I'm definitely a fan of whole-foods first to lower inflammation, life is busy and prepackaged foods will always be a part of our lives and dinner table. That's why it's important you understand how to read a food label so you can make choices that align with your health goals.

Let's explore the essential elements of food labels and what they mean for your health.


Ingredients List:

Hands down, the ingredients list is the most important part of the label and the first three ingredients listed are typically the majority profile of the product. The ingredients list is your roadmap to what's inside the product. A simple rule of thumb … if you can’t pronounce it, avoid it. Opt for items with simple, recognizable ingredients. Beware of additives, preservatives, and excessive amounts of added sugars or unhealthy fats.

While approved by the FDA and Health Canada, food chemicals and preservatives offer no nutritional value. You can also think of it this way … if a company has to add flavour and chemicals to make a product taste and look good, how is it helping YOUR health?

Five to watch out for: 

  • Gums: emulsifies dairy and non-dairy milks, yogurts and ice creams so they appear smooth (linked with GI upset)
  • Brominated vegetable oil: used in sports drinks as an emulsifier (neurological, thyroid, heart, liver, reproductive problems)
  • Potassium bromate: a flour additive that helps food “rise higher” (linked to cancer)
  • Propylparaben: extends shelf life of products, especially corn-based tortillas and shells (a hormone disruptor)
  • Food dyes: red dye #3 in particular gives food bright colouring (linked to hyperactivity, thyroid and cancer)


Nutritional Information:

This section will tell you about key nutrients like calories, protein, carbohydrates, fats, and sugars. This is helpful when you are working on balancing your macronutrients to help you reach your health goals. Look for products that offer a balance of these nutrients, keeping in mind your individual dietary needs and goals. 

  • Protein Intake: essential for muscle and tissue repair, growth, neurotransmitters. Basically, protein or the building blocks for your body and your daily depends on your body weight & level of activity. It's helpful to work with a professional to establish your targets, taking your fat and carbohydrate needs into consideration.
  • Fat Intake: if you are reducing starch or sugars and trying to fight inflammation, you may need to increase your healthy fat intake as an energy source. This will also influence your dietary cholesterol. Cholesterol is the backbone of hormones, cellular structure and helps vitamin D function properly. Professional recommendations are all over the map in this area and it truly comes down to the person. If you have heart disease, please defer to your medical practitioner on guidelines.
  • Carbohydrates: all carbohydrates break down into glucose. Unfortunately, the Western diet is extremely high in excess carbohydrates which contributes to inflammation. Understanding your unique protein and healthy fat requirements will help you bring carbohydrates into check for your autoimmune. More on sugar and fats below.
  • Sodium: While sodium is an important electrolyte for your body, the Western diet is far too high in sodium due to reliance on processed foods. The average daily intake is upwards of 3,500 mg per person (that's 3.5 Tablespoons). Keeping sodium intake below 2,000 is a better target, unless medically recommended to do otherwise. 
  • Potassium: is essential for normal cell function. Adult women require approximately 2,600mg per day and unfortunately, most fall short. Fruits, vegetables, meats, legumes and some grains are all excellent choices. In cases of kidney disease, potassium intake may need to be reduced, but only based on medical advice.


Added Sugars and Sweeteners:

You probably know that sugar increases inflammation. But not all sugar is created equal. There is a very big difference between raw, local honey which has nutritive properties and highly refined sugars and sweeteners which have no nutritional value and can actually hurt your health. 

Sugar and sweeteners can hide under various names, so keep an eye out for terms like sucrose, high fructose corn syrup, and other sweeteners. Limiting added sugars is crucial for maintaining overall health.

  • High fructose corn syrup has been renamed “fructose” or “glucose syrup” by some food companies.
  • Any ingredient ending is “ose” or “extrin” is typically an added sugar.
  • Ingredients ending in “ol” are sugar alcohols and manmade sweeteners.  These are used a lot in “keto” or “sugar free” snacks, treats and bars. They can be particularly triggering for those with IBD and IBS.Erythritol recently made international headlines with its link to cardiovascular disease.
  • Aspartame, saccharin, ACE-K are also artificial sweeteners and have been linked to health concerns.

Instead, choose ingredients that include ingredients like honey, maple syrup, cane or coconut sugar. Personally, I'm not against pure monk fruit or stevia as swaps, but only when used in small quantities and not daily.


Healthy Fats vs. Unhealthy Fats:

Distinguish between healthy fats (like those from whole nuts, avocados, and olive oil) and processed vegetable oils. Typically, the Western diet is higher in processed vegetable oils (Omega 6) and lower in Omega 3s. 

A dietary intake ratio of 3x Omega 6s to 1x Omega 3 (3:1) is ideal for keeping inflammation at bay, but it’s estimated that most people have a ratio closer to 20:1! That’s 20 Omega 6s for every 1 Omega 3. That's because in today’s busy, modern world, people rely heavily on convenience or processed foods for daily meals and snacks. This makes sense when you look at food sources for these essential fatty acids.

Omega 6s are found in:

  • Plant oils - like safflower, canola, vegetable, corn and soybean (including tofu), all which are abundant in processed foods 


Omega 9s are found in:

  • Plant oils - olives, avocado, sunflower, peanut, soy, corn, nut oils, so there is some crossover with Omega 6

Omega 3s are found in:

  • Fish and shellfish, and in lesser degree in nuts/seeds like flax, chia, walnuts, organ meat and grassfed beef (also crossover with Omega 6s).

This creates a pro-inflammatory scenario for those with autoimmune. Given that rheumatic and neuromuscular disease puts you at higher risk of cardiovascular disease, it’s important to understand YOUR risks and adapt your nutrition plan accordingly. 

>> CLICK HERE to read my blog on the importance of Omega 3s with autoimmune and inflammation

Serving Sizes and Portions:

The serving size listed on a food label can be a key to helping understanding portion sizes to make realistic assessments of the nutrients you're consuming. One cup versus ¼ cup … there is a big difference.

Five Quick Tips for Savvy Food Label Reading:

  1. My clients and members of the Integrative Autoimmune Network often send me labels to decipher on their behalf. Here are some practical tips to help you.
  2. Familiarize yourself with common additives and preservatives.
  3. Look for products with shorter ingredient lists and recognizable names. If you can't pronounce it, if you don't know what it is, if it has abbreviations or if it has numbers, chances are it's not ideal.
  4. Avoid products with added or multiple sugars or sweeteners included in the ingredients list.
  5. Compare labels when choosing between similar products to make the healthiest choice.




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