How to be a Savvy Food Label Reader

A healthy diet is crucial to our overall health, energy, and longevity. Deciphering food labels is half the battle. Packaged and prepared foods come with nutrition facts and an ingredients list. Knowing how to read these can help you choose the best products. Here are 10 tips to remember:

1. Be Skeptical of Health Claims

Most of what you see on the front of a container is marketing. A company’s primary motivation is to sell a product, often extolling the latest diet fads. For example, a product might say “low fat” or “light” but look at the whole story because other aspects might not be as healthy.

2. Read the Entire Label Including Ingredients List

The information in the ingredients list can help you determine if the food is truly healthy. Ingredients are listed in order of quantity. A product may say it doesn’t have trans fat or is low fat, but then has palm or coconut oil in the ingredients. 

3. Check Serving Size

The serving size is often smaller than you think. All of the information on the label is based on one serving and a serving size can be small. If a package has four servings and you eat the whole package, you will need to multiply everything (calories, fat, etc.) by four.

4. Check Calories Per Serving

Calories are the amount of energy you get from the food you eat. It’s easy to consume more calories than we need, especially if you’re not looking at the serving size (#3 above). If an item has 250 calories per serving but has four servings, if you eat all four servings then you consumed 1,000 calories. Little known fact: The FDA allows companies to round down to zero if an item contains half a calorie. Since companies are allowed to make very small serving sizes, they can say “calorie-free” or “fat-free” for that one small serving, but if you eat the whole package, you might consume more fat and calories than you realize.

5. Look at Calories From Fat

If weight loss or heart disease is a concern, limit your fat intake to 30% or less of total calories. The recommended level of saturated fat is 10% or less of total calories consumed per day. The label will not always tell you the percent of calories from fat. Look at the grams per calories. Keeping the fat content to about 2 grams for every 100 calories is one approach.

6. Check Sodium Content

Packaged foods often have high sodium content. The RDA recommendation of sodium is 2,300 mg or less per day. For folks with heart disease or high blood pressure, it is recommended to keep sodium intake to 1,500 mg or less per day. Compare the sodium content to the calorie content. Keeping the milligrams of sodium listed on the label close to the calorie content is a good tip. 

7. Avoid Trans Fats

If you’re concerned about heart disease, try to avoid trans fat entirely. Partially hydrogenated oils, palm oils, shortening, and margarine all contain trans fats. Polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fat are easier on your heart, but they still have the same amount of calories: nine grams (vs. four grams for carbohydrates).

8. Check Sugar Content

Hidden sugars are everywhere, so you need to inspect the “added sugar” column. Watch for words such as corn, rice or maple syrup, molasses, malted barley, barley malt, honey or any word that ends in “ol”, such as maltitol or sorbitol, as well as words that end in “ose”. Often you will see multiple sugars in a list: dextrose, fructose, and barley malt, for example. Avoid foods that have added sweeteners listed as the first three to five ingredients. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children ages 2-18 get no more than 25 grams of sugar per day (about six teaspoons). While that may sound like a lot, it’s easy to achieve. (One 12-ounce can of Coca-Cola contains 39 grams of sugar; a 11-ounce can of San Pellegrino sparkling soda has 29 grams.) 

9. Keep it Whole Grain

Often the label is misleading. The first ingredient listed should say WHOLE GRAIN. If it says wheat flour, it is not whole grain—it is still refined. You want as many of the ingredients that are flour- or grain-related to say “whole grain” as you go down the list. Look for at least three grams of fiber per serving. That will ensure a more whole grain product. 

10. Fiber is Underrated

Only 3-4 percent of Americans get the recommended amount of fiber. The RDA recommends consuming 30 grams of fiber per day. Research shows that fiber is beneficial to the microbiome of the gut.

Michele Stokes

SNA member and Health Coach at Gyre Wellness

Author: Michele Stokes

SNA member and Health Coach at Gyre Wellness