How to read nutrition labels at a glance. The nutrition facts explained, plus what words to avoid and the most important nutrients to watch for on the label.
The nutrition world can be confusing. One minute, we’re all worried about fat, the next minute we’re all worried about calories and then everyone was up in arms about sugar. Have you noticed the health trends shifting over the years? It's hard to stay on top of it!
The nutrition world is ever-changing, but there is one constant that hasn't changed in 18 years: the nutrition label. The label was passed into law in 1990 and required that all packaged foods bear nutrition labeling, which included the food ingredient panel, serving sizes and all terms such as “low fat” and “light” be standardized.
Since these labels are on pretty much everything in the grocery store these days, I thought it might be helpful to share how I personally look at nutrition labels. What I pay attention to, what I don't pay attention to and what it all means.
I have a certain process I go through when buying new products or looking at packaged food at the grocery store so that's what we're going to talk about today!
Let's start on what you see first on the shelves: the front of the package. This is where most of the health claims and marketing terms live. It's also how the brand can make its first impression on us. Sometimes a product is designed in a way that makes ti look really healthy and pure, but when you flip it around you're surprised at what you find.
Since there are lots of buzzwords living on the front of our packages, here are some you might want to know about:
- Natural: seems like it would be a positive thing but in reality, it doesn’t mean much. Many chemicals are technically “natural” when you think about it so don’t pay too much attention to the natural health claim!
- Fortified: means that vitamins and minerals were added to the product. Sometimes those nutrients get lost in processing and get added back in OR (and in most cases) they were never there to begin with.
- Organic: now this word actually does mean something! According to the Public Health and Safety Organization, packages that say “made with organic ingredients” must be made from 70% organically produced ingredients. Packages that just say “organic” must be made from 95% organic products and if the package says 100% organic, all of the ingredients must be organic.
- Non-GMO Project Verified: is another certification that brands can get that means all ingredients used are not genetically modified.
- Low-fat: according to the FDA this means the product must contain 3 grams of fat or less per serving.
- Low-calorie: for a meal or main, it must be 120 calories or less per serving.
- Reduced-fat: at least 25% less fat than the compared “normal” product
If you want even more info about the exact label requirements for other terms like, “low”, “reduced/less”, “light”, etc., check out this article about the FDA regulatory requirements for nutrition content claims.
How to Read Nutrition Labels
Okay, no let's flip the box around and look at the nutrition label. Since there's a lot of information there, I want to break it down and share the things that I pay attention to first:
1. Ingredient List
I always look at the ingredient list first. Can I read all of the ingredients? In general, do I know what each ingredient is or have I heard of them before? If most ingredients are whole foods or I at least recognize all of the ingredients, green light! You also want to check out the order of ingredients. Ingredients are listed from greatest amount to least amount. The main ingredient I check for here is sugar. Is sugar one of the first few ingredients? I typically pass on it…
2. Serving Size
Next up, take a peek at the serving size. How many servings does the package hold? Sometimes small granola bars and snack bags are more than one serving so it's a little deceiving! I always just look at the serving size to make a mental note of approximately how much I should be eating in a serving.
3. Nutrition Facts
Lastly, I browse over the nutrition facts. While I don’t calorie count or really pay attention to specific numbers here, I do keep my eye on a few numbers:
- Trans Fat: lowers your good cholesterol (HDL) and raises your bad cholesterol (LDL) so I take note of and try to limit trans fat.
- Sodium: I pay the closest attention to the percentage of sodium, just to see how much is in each serving. Some items (like canned soups for example) can be incredibly high in sodium.
- Fiber: the higher the better in my opinion, especially when it's something like a cracker, cereal, bread or bar. The higher the fiber, the slower it will take to digest (meaning you'll stay fuller for longer) and your blood sugar levels won't rise as much.
- Protein: since I'm mostly plant-based, this number is important to me. I'm not trying for a certain number each day, but I do just like to monitor how much protein I'm getting in the foods I'm eating.
- Sugar: we talked about where sugar is hiding in your food last week, but again, I try to limit how much sugar I’m getting. I’m less worried about sugar if it’s from whole food sources (like honey, fruit, maple syrup, etc.) but it's still something to take note of! Especially in snacks and bars – sometimes protein bars can be upwards of 20g of sugar per bar!
And that's pretty much it! Now I'd love to know…
How do you review packaged food?
Is your process similar to mine? I'd love to know what items you pay attention to most! And if you have any more questions about nutrition labels, make sure to drop them down below!