3 Underrated Things To Know About Your Nutrition Labels, From An MD
Nutrition labels are notoriously difficult to unpack. If you've ever spent an ample amount of time mulling over the fine print in the supermarket, you know just how confusing they can be upon first glance. That said, there's certainly a case for simplifying these labels, so shoppers can peruse grocery store aisles with ease.
But according to pediatric neuroendocrinologist and New York Times bestselling author Robert Lustig, M.D., nutrition labels aren't actually complex enough. As he writes in his new book, Metabolical: "The label tells us what's in the food, but what we really need to know is what has been done to the food, and no label tells us that." And on this episode of the mindbodygreen podcast, he explains what shoppers still need to know:
A nutrition label doesn't track what's taken out.
According to Lustig, there's a reason produce without labels is known as "whole" foods: When there's a label, it means something was either added in or taken out. Now, when you peer at nutrition facts, you might be thinking about what's inside of the food—but Lustig says you should pay just as much attention to what's removed.
"Stuff that's been taken out, that's not listed anywhere on the food," he says. "Really, what we should be talking about is what's been put in versus what's been taken out." Say, if the label disclosed what was removed, you could have some guesstimate on the degree of processing that occurred. "You could make decisions on what you would consume based on that," he adds, which, oftentimes, might make you a bit more apprehensive with your processed purchases.
That's not to say all nutrition labels are inherently bad—when you are purchasing processed foods, it's important to know what's in there!—but just know that those labels might not disclose every single detail.
Most of the time, fiber is removed.
In terms of what gets removed during processing, fiber is of the most noteworthy nutrients to mention. Says Lustig, "Fiber is the primary food for [your] intestinal bacteria. The problem is, we've taken fiber out of food very specifically for shelf life."
For example, when you eat a whole grain, it has a husk on the outside, while the starch lives on the inside. When you swallow that grain, your intestines have to "shear off all that fiber" before you can digest the starch. "[This] means that the absorption of that starch will be very delayed. And that's a good thing because that means that your glucose level doesn't go up so fast, and your insulin level stays low."
But when you have processed grains—white breads, cereals, and the like—the refining process removes that outer coat from the starch, which lowers the fiber content and makes your body absorb it much faster (which can then lead to blood sugar spikes and crashes). In fact, one study on whole grains found that their benefits were diluted when heavily processed and stripped of their fiber.
"It has a label [likely] because the fiber has been removed," adds Lustig. "Stuff in the produce section of the store, they don't have food labels. The reason is because nothing has been done to them. There's only a label if something has been done to it."
Labels on meat can be especially tricky.
You likely know the issues with factory-farmed meat (here's a refresher, just in case). But according to Lustig, those animals actually have metabolic syndrome: When they're corn-fed, he says, "branched-chain amino acids are being turned into fat in the liver, which is driving their hyperinsulinemia, which is driving their growth." That's why he suggests purchasing grass-fed beef, which doesn't have as much fat marbled into the cuts of meat.
As for chicken, free-range or pasture-raised is typically your best bet. Although, says Lustig, you may see some questionable ingredients on nutrition labels, even ones deemed "all-natural" or "organic."
"A lot of chicken breasts are dipped in salt solutions to swell them so that they can sell it for more [money]," he says, a process commonly known as "plumping" or "enhancing." Lustig adds, "There's a lot of extra liquid added to it very specifically to increase the price." So if you see a percentage of salt, water, or spices on the label, that's likely what it's referring to. The liquid also keeps the bird more moist, juicy, and flavorful—if you see "natural flavor" on the label, it typically refers to a saline injection of salt, concentrated sugar and lemon, or broth.
"The bottom line is if you eat real food, you won't have to worry about any of this stuff," Lustig says. Things like whole fruits, vegetables, and grains—ones that don't come with a label. Of course, shopping completely label-free is unrealistic for some, and we're not here to say you shouldn't ever snag a package of chicken breasts at the grocery store. If you do opt for these items, Lustig just recommends understanding what your labels are truly telling you.