One of the toughest parts about starting the Low FODMAP diet is learning to navigate food labels. Food labels share a lot of information such as serving size, calories, nutrients, ingredients, allergens, etc. It can be daunting to read one, especially if you’re new to the practice.
More challenging still is learning to recognize some of the sneakier FODMAPs in ingredient lists and trying to understand if the amounts might make a serving size high FODMAP. You can find FODMAPs in unexpected places (garlic powder in ketchup?), so the more familiar you are with FODMAPs the easier it gets, but until then consider these top tips to guide you on your journey.
Five Tips for Reading Food Labels
Understand How Ingredient Labels Work
Ingredients are listed by volume with the highest quantity being listed first and the lowest quantity last. That’s why you’ll often see the end of an ingredient list indicate that a serving has “less than 1% of…” because the amounts of the items that follow are so miniscule. Something to keep in mind, since the Low FODMAP diet is not strictly ingredient based, but also quantity based, you may be able to have small amounts of something that contains a high FODMAP ingredient if the amount you’d have is still considered low FODMAP. For me, it was easier to avoid everything at the beginning until I had a better understanding of quantities and was more comfortable reading labels, but it does add an element of flexibility to the process once you’re more accustomed to it.
Eat Whole Foods
If you eat more unprocessed foods like fruits, veggies, meats, etc. then you have less food label reading to do to begin with! Keep those quantities in mind as you make a meal or prepare a snack, but know that while browsing produce you don’t have to scrutinize a list of unfamiliar terms to check for potential triggers.
There are several helpful apps out there you can utilize to study up on some of your favorite items as you’re navigating the FODMAP world and some that you can use to scan foods in the store as you shop that can help guide your purchases.
The Monash app is of course the resource for all things FODMAP, but the Spoonful app can be helpful to navigate your local grocery store. I know when I first started the Low FODMAP Diet I relied heavily on both of these apps to stock my cupboard with compliant snacks and new basics such as low FODMAP flour and pasta.
Don’t Rely on Other Dietary Guidelines or Restrictions
Gluten Free does not mean low FODMAP. Unless you have a food allergy, there is no need to eat only allergen free products. So while it can be helpful to see something labeled gluten free or soy free there may be other ingredients in the product that make it high FODMAP. Remember that the low FODMAP diet will often still permit small quantities of high FODMAP foods/ingredients, so there is no need to strictly avoid gluten, dairy, soy, etc. unless you are already avoiding those items for different reasons.
Be wary of broad terms like “natural flavors” on food labels as they could be concealing FODMAPs. Generally if the ingredients are low on the list or make up only a small percentage of the overall item then you don’t have to be too concerned about getting a high FODMAP quantity of a potential trigger. Refer to your apps if you have questions or want more information about a product or many companies offer additional details on their websites or via their customer support options. Avoid it entirely if you aren’t comfortable with it. Our mindset plays a role in how our body reacts and if you’re nervous to eat something even if there are no FODMAPs you may trigger symptoms. (More details here.)
Getting to know food labels can be intimidating as they provide a ton of information that you may not be familiar with. They may also not provide all the information you’d like in the detail you want. The important thing is not to let the labels run your life. Always look at food labels carefully so you understand the ingredient and the serving size, but don’t become obsessed with them. If you can’t make sense of something, put it back for now and take some time to research it later so you don’t spend hours in the store (in my experience that only makes it all the more frustrating). Keep your trusty apps handy and make sure you feel confident in what you put into your body. Remember, we are better off if we work with our gut.