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How To Read Ingredient Labels

October 6, 2015

As you've probably heard before, we talk about the importance of ingredients all of the time. Choosing products with good ingredients is a big part of improving your diet, but in order to do so, you're going to need to have a plan for reading ingredient labels. Here's how to read ingredient labels:
  1. Make it a habit to find the ingredient label when you pick up a product. This sounds trivial, but many brands go out of their way to make the ingredient list hard to find, or hard to read using small fonts and tight spacing. Typically brands that use quality ingredients make their labels easy to read as a way to show that they're committed to quality.
  2. Read the ingredients on the label. Ask yourself: do I understand what every ingredient is? We think you should only eat things that you can easily pronounce, and that are found in nature. Here's an example: Gluten-free Oats, Dried Apples, Canola Oil, Honey, Maple Syrup, Cinnamon. That's a pretty good ingredient list, easy to understand, (mostly) ingredients that are found in nature.
  3. In point #2, we wrote "mostly". This is the crux move for your understanding ingredient labels: where should you draw the line with ingredients? Canola oil is a processed form of the rape plant, you definitely don't see rivers of pure Canola Oil in nature. So should you eat it?
This is where things get a little bit tricky. It's not going to do you any good to stick to a militant plan in which you can't eat ANY Canola Oil. It's just not practical, nor is canola oil really bad for you. It is not as good as consuming other types of fats, but we aren't going to say it's bad for you. We recommend a common sense approach to reviewing ingredient labels and choosing what works for you based on your dietary needs, and athletic goals. In a perfect world, you'd be living on a farm where you can get 100% of your food from the field in your backyard. In reality many of you have reasonable access to this type of high quality food, but I bet you don't always execute the plan perfectly every day. When shopping for food that helps make your busy lifestyle healthier, follow those three steps above and then do a little bit of research if there's a product that you like that has ingredients you don't know. To illustrate, here are some ingredients that I've pulled directly from labels in our inventory: Pure Maple Syrup. Maple syrup comes directly from the inside of a tree, then it gets boiled down to a concentrated form for you to consume. If a product that you like uses maple syrup, not only is this a healthy ingredient, you know the brand has gone out of it's way to choose a more expensive ingredient - which directly impacts their bottom line. Brown Rice Syrup. This is a processed form of rice starch that creates an ingredient very similar to pure glucose (brown rice syrup glycemic index 98, glucose glycemic index 100). Brown rice syrup gets a bad rap due to a 2012 study which concluded that many brown rice syrups had high levels of arsenic. Our take is that brown rice syrup from quality sources is not a major problem, but we'd tend to choose a product with cane sugar or tapioca syrup if we have the option. Sunflower Lecithin (also commonly soy lecithin or just lecithin). Lecithin was first "created" in 1846, but it's now commonly used as a natural emulsifier or lubricant. Lecithin is a common ingredient in anything that has a chocolate coating. When you put those ingredients together, they need an emulsifier to bind them all together. Many protein bars use this ingredient, and that's why we try to use protein powders in shakes over protein bars when possible. Natural Flavor. I've never been walking down the street and seen a natural flavor tree. While this stuff is not bad for you, it's a cheaper option for various flavors like "berry" "caramel" "strawberry". Instead of using the actual food to produce the flavor, "Natural Flavors" allow for an artificial flavor. Palm Oil. Palm oil has recently been given a bad rap due to harvesting palm trees in the rainforest, devastating animal habitat in the process. Nutritionally, palm oil is quite similar to that of coconut oil and should be considered a healthy fat used in moderation. Many brands are now going out of their to source sustainably farmed palm oil, and we encourage the trend. Sodium Benzoate. Sodium benzoate is a preservative commonly used salad dressing, carbonated drinks, jams and fruit juices. The FDA considers it "GRAS" or generally recognized as safe. We're going to avoid eating this ingredient unless it's in one of our favorite go-to products. Otherwise...skip it. Tapioca Syrup. Tapioca syrup is a sweetener that comes from cassava root. It's commonly recognized as a healthy alternative to sweeteners that have a higher glycemic index. Many products that endurance athletes use now have a blend of tapioca syrup and other carbohydrates so that the CHO sources are varied between "complex" and "simple" which may help in absorption during endurance sports. If you have any additional questions, please ask us below!