Riboflavin, cholesterol, krypton...ok, the last one is Superman's home planet, but the first two are items that show up on your food labels and may be intimidating enough to scare you form enquiring what is in the food you are buying.
Food manufacturers are required, by law, to display labels disclosing the quantities of macro and micro nutrients available in a serving of their product, which is good. But it is only good in the way that hieroglyphics are good for Indiana Jones. If you aren't trained at reading these labels, they may as well be giant eyes and stick figures with wolf heads. There is a lot of information on the label of a food container, but you don't have all day to pull out your abacus and calculate the percentage of your daily recommended intake of sodium a product consumes. Instead, it is better keep label reading simple.
Don't be fooled The first thing you should know is what NOT to look for. With a recent health push in the grocery and food production industry, words like All Natural, Gluten free, Fat free, Sugar free, etc, are appearing on packages everywhere. Firstly, I know my potatoe is soy and gluten free, you don't need to throw a label on it telling me so. Second, Natural doesn't mean healthy. Companies are playing off of a new "Organic" movement that is gaining momentum in the western world (we are far behind Europe in this regard, by the way), and trying to insinuate that their product is wholesome. Don't buy it for a second. When label-reading, it is best to keep things simple (KISS sucka). When I label shop, I look at 5 categories: Trans fat, Sodium, Sugar, Fibre and Protein. That's right, I don't give a flying Fig about carbs!
Trans fat You'll notice I didn't just say "Total Fat". That's because total fat is not the enemy. As I'm sure you have heard, a certain level of fats are good, and certain fats are even required. But Trans Fat is not required and does not occur frequently in natural (un-processed foods). Most trans fat is created through the hydrogenation process and consumption of this type of fat is directly linked to heart disease. Egg yolks have received a bad reputation over the years because they are high in cholesterol, but the fact is that eating cholesterol from natural sources is not really a big deal, however Trans Fat is directly responsible for raising cholesterol production in the body to dangerous levels, ultimately causing plaque build up in your arteries. Avoid foods that contain Trans Fat, there is simply no reason to eat it.
Sodium Sodium is the culprit for a lot of health issues in today's eat on the go world. The thing about sodium is that our body loves the taste of it. It gives us an instant blood pressure spike (contributing to elevated levels, over time), and can lead to kidney stones and kidney failure. Sodium isn't all bad though, in tandem with potassium, it is a necessary electrolyte that facilitates innervation of our muscles, and contributes to enhanced recovery time in athletes. The issue is that the general population consumes way too much sodium. For
instance, the average person should not consume sports drinks, like Gatorade. Processed, manufactured, and "fast" foods are packed with sodium because it helps enhance shelf life and taste. To give you an idea, the maximal daily recommended intake of sodium is around 2300mg; a double cheeseburger from McDonalds has 1090mg of sodium alone, and Kraft dinner has 561mg of sodium per 70g serving size (roughly the size of half a bagel). When selecting an item, try to choose a product with single digit percentages of daily value, per serving (<300mg).
Sugar Sugar is the main culprit for people becoming addicted to food and is why we struggle with obesity on such a massive scale. It is in all foods and is unavoidable. Don't be fooled though, there is a big difference between the sugars you eat in a red pepper, and the silky white sugar you sprinkled on your Sugar Frosted Crisps (I didn't get name brand cereal as a child). Studies have actually shown that consuming table sugar (usually made of beets or cane) lights up the same area of the brain in obese people as heroin does for addicts. For the record, sugar is a carbohydrate (simple carb) and provides instant energy, however, if we consume too much sugar (levels that exceed our activity level) our body stores it as fat. When purchasing food products, look for grams (g) of sugar in single digits, per serving. Any higher and you are just eating junk-food.
Fibre Poo. And hunger. Poo and hunger is why you should look carefully at the amount of fibre in your food. Fibre is divided in to two types, soluble and insoluble. Soluble fibre contains a low 4 calories per gram. A diet high in fibre cleans out your clock, so to speak, and contributes to good colon health. Insoluble fibre, by definition, cannot be metabolized by the human digestive system, and is therefore pooped out, with the body consuming a whopping 0 calories. The reason fibre is so critical to those looking to lose weight, is that while it is a consumable food, and thus contributes to feelings of satiety (fullness), it is low in, or absent of, calories. Foods with 2g or more of fibre should be targeted, though it is difficult/impossible to get your daily quota in one sitting. That is why you should aim to have a significant source of fibre in every snack and meal. Poo and hunger.
Protein Protein is the darling of pop culture weight-loss and receives all of the acclaim that it could possibly need. My contribution will be thusly, while protein is great for muscle repair and contributing to feelings of fullness, an excess of consumed protein will turn to fat. An average person does not need to consume more than 0.6g of protein per kilogram (kg) of body weight. If you are crazy active, work out 6 days per week and play in sport leagues, maybe (maybe) you need 1g per kg. Those who work out hard, and are looking to gain muscle, as well as elite level athletes, may want to consume 1.2-1.4g/kg. Beyond that, it is overkill, and you aren't doing your kidneys, bone density, or hydration levels any favours either. Most of us get more than enough protein in our diets, but if you must have a number, then, threeve.
Labels can be intimidating, but they certainly don't have to be. Keep it simple, break it down to the five categories we looked at and try keep the Trans fat, sodium & sugar low, while aiming to have the fibre and protein high. For quick reference, here is what a good label (to me) would consist of: Trans Fat: 0g, Sodium: 250mg, Sugar: 4g, Fibre: 4g, Protein: 7g