My Healthy Habit Challenge: I Started Reading Nutrition Labels

updated May 1, 2019
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Welcome to our Healthy Habit Challenge! Instead of focusing on (impossible-to-keep) New Year’s resolutions, we challenged four writers to start a new healthy habit. These challenges aren’t about cutting out sugar or going on a diet, or focused on the negative. They’re about doing something new and good — and making it second-nature. Here’s how they went.

Original challenge:

My Healthy Habit Challenge: I’m Gonna Start Reading Nutrition Labels

A few weeks ago, I embarked on a mission to get in the habit of being a more informed grocery shopper. The plan: To read — and understand — the labels of everything I buy. I saw my store trips double in time (reading the fine print takes forever!). Tedium aside, I did learn some interesting information about the foods I buy (and maybe will stop buying).

1. There are additives everywhere!

In most cases, they’re probably harmless, but sometimes I wonder why they’re even there. For example, I’ve found it really hard to track down canned coconut milk (to make curries or dairy-free desserts) that doesn’t have sodium metabisulfite, a preservative. However, my layperson understanding is that preservation is kinda the point of canning something.

Other common additives I noticed fall into the category of stabilizers and thickeners and include guar gum and locust bean gum (both harmless soluble fiber derived from guar beans and locust beans, respectively); xanthan gum (a bacterial byproduct from the fermentation of sugars, which is common in gluten-free baked goods because it creates the elasticity that gluten provides in wheat products); and carrageenan. That last one, a thickening agent derived from seaweed that is commonly added to dairy and nondairy milk and ice cream, is the most controversial for potentially causing gastrointestinal distress and has been suspected as a carcinogen. The EU banned it in infant formula as a precaution, and just last November the National Organic Standards Board voted it out of products labeled “organic.”

2. Even foods that seem pretty basic may have unexpected ingredients.

In the past year, there was a huge controversy about how shredded cheese often contains cellulose — or wood fiber — to prevent those little bits from sticking together, a fact that remains true in many offerings. But I was surprised to discover that “100 percent” lemon juice often has preservatives in the form of sulfites like sodium benzoate, sodium metabisulfite, and sodium sulfite; the FDA requires a warning that something “contains sulfites” because they can cause difficulty breathing in sensitive people.

Tuna packed in water can also have vegetable broth — not a problem, per se, but curious — and, more mysteriously, says it “contains soy,” although nothing obviously soy-based is listed among the ingredients. The bottom line: I’m surprised labels aren’t bigger, due to all the stuff companies list on them!

3. There are a lot of silly touts on the front of packages.

Being gluten-free for medical reasons, I’m particularly attuned to spotting those words on packaging. And it’s a relief when things like boxed cereals and oatmeal — which can often be processed on the same equipment as wheat — assure me that they’re safe for me to consume. However, it always gives me a giggle to see “gluten-free” emblazoned loudly on a bag of plain ridged potato chips. Gluten exists naturally only in wheat and a few other grains, and when it’s added to something it’s to give it a chewy or elastic-y texture — so there’s no good reason to even consider that potato chips might contain gluten at all. (Short of them being fried in the same oil as something breaded, I guess.)

Understandably, if you don’t have to avoid gluten, you might not realize that chips should inherently be free of the stuff, but it’s kinda like stamping almond milk as “dairy-free” or carrot sticks as “vegetarian.” Even if gluten-free doesn’t matter to you, use this as a lesson that anything in big, bold letters on packaging should be taken with a grain of salt.

4. Pricing really doesn’t make sense.

This might’ve been the most annoying part of my project: The stores do not make it easy to be a value-focused consumer. First, you can’t assume the per-unit pricing is the same even across the same category; I saw price tags listed in ounces and pounds, and ounces and liters (gah, metric!).

Not only that, but sometimes produce is sold by the pound or by the unit; I saw two types of avocados right next to each other, one being sold in the former scheme and the other in the latter. Rotisserie chicken is almost always sold at a flat price, even though some chickens are inherently meatier than others. Of course, if you want to get really, er, frugal, you should weigh out some of the unit-priced items so you get a bigger one (and the most value).

You also can’t assume that the larger-sized package is cheaper per ounce than a smaller one — a smaller box of cereal ended up cheaper ounce for ounce than the larger one, and it wasn’t even on sale. And finally, you also can’t assume that the store brand is cheaper than the name brand, especially if there’s a sale on the latter.

5. Reading all your food makes you want to eat out more.

I joke, sort of. After just a week of this, it definitely seemed appealing to just let someone else prepare food for me so there wouldn’t be labels for me to consume before I consume. But really, I’ve found that it’s made me want to eat more whole (read: not boxed, jarred, or canned) foods, which I think is a pretty good takeaway.

I already wasn’t buying a ton of pantry-type stuff from the middle of the store, and now I buy even less, or at least stick to the staples I know I can count on. This isn’t to say I won’t ever eat another “processed” food again — just that I’m going to be more aware of what it is I’m eating, when I choose to eat it. And that was really the whole point.

Habit Wrap-Up

By the end of this assignment, it became more automatic to just flipping things over to read the ingredients — I even caught myself reading the back of my shampoo bottle! — but I have gone back to glossing over the loud marketing speak on the front of the package (see number 3 above!).

I’m now in the habit of comparing the prices using an app I discovered, Unit Compare. With this, I see how frequently the assumptions I used to have (that larger packages and non-name brands were better values) aren’t true.

I’ve also made habits of grabbing certain packaged foods because I’ve already read them and I know what’s in there.

But I’m not perfect — I got so caught up in price-comparing when buying granola bars the other day that I forgot to read the ingredients and the one I bought — which was a great value — contained wheat (most don’t, but you clearly can’t assume that). And I can’t eat wheat. Whoops!