Have you ever stood in the supermarket staring at two packages of what seem to be the exact same food? Let’s take loaves of bread, for instance. They’re both brown and covered with seeds. One might say “great source of whole-grain” while the other says “multi-grain” or “made with ancient grains.” Just how are you supposed to tell which one is better for you? I know it can get frustrating, but have no fear! There’s an art to reading nutrition labels, and after this quick master class, you’ll be the Rembrandt of grocery shopping!

The Front Label:

This is the trickiest part of reading a food package because this is where manufacturers like to make their wildest claims. In our bread example above, for instance, neither package’s claims really mean anything. “Great source of whole grain” does not tell us how much of the bread’s grains are actually whole. Neither does “multi-grain.” In fact, these terms are often used to make a product sound healthier than it is. The truth is that very few of the claims on front packages are even regulated. Gluten-free and the whole grain stamp are the only examples that immediately jump to mind. The whole grain stamp, by the way, is the only guarantee of a product’s grain content.  Products that say “100% whole grain” or “50% whole grain” are required by law to be accurately labeled.

So, instead of focusing on the front of a food’s package, we suggest flipping it over and looking at the nutrition label, because that’s where they hide all the good stuff!

The Nutrition Label:

  1. Serving Size. Check this first. It will tell you how many servings are in a package. The serving size is often different than the amount we actually eat, so make sure that you are adjusting the rest of your information accordingly. For example, if a serving size is one cookie but you plan to eat two, you will need to double the calories and other nutrients to accurately assess what you will be taking in.
  2. Fat. This will tell you how much of the food is made up of fat. Total fat is important to pay attention to, but even more important is the amount of trans fat, as this is linked to poor health outcomes. Beware of a claim of 0 grams of trans fat. If a serving size has less than 0.5 grams of trans fat, the manufacturers are legally allowed to claim that the product has 0. However, as we already noted, you might be actually consuming several “servings,” and that trans fat can start to add up. To see if there is hidden trans fat in a food item, look below at the ingredient list and look for either hydrogenated or partially-hydrogenated oils. These indicate trans fat and should be avoided.
  3. Sodium. Processed foods can contain a lot of sodium so it’s best to try to limit it where you can, especially for people with high blood pressure or CVD. Experts suggest looking for foods that contain less than 5% of the DV (daily value) per serving.
  4. Sugar. Hidden sugars exist in practically all packaged foods, even foods that boast whole-grains. And while sugar makes our food tasty, if you’re monitoring your intake, here are a couple of tips to help you budget! A good rule of thumb is to compare the labels of foods. This way you can see which package has more grams of sugar. Also, to look for added sugar in a food item, scan the ingredient list for the following words: molasses, organic cane sugar, fruit juice concentrate, malt sugar, corn syrup, honey, syrup, and words ending in “ose” like dextrose, lactose, maltose, fructose, glucose, and sucrose. The more of these words you find in the list and the higher up, the more added sugar is in that food.
  5. % Daily Value. Just a quick reminder, this number is based on a 2,000 calorie diet, which does not apply to everyone. A dietitian can calculate your needs for you or you can approximate them using tools found online or in various apps. If your caloric needs are much different than 2,000 calories/day, you will need to adjust your % daily needs accordingly.
  6. Ingredient List. The final piece of the puzzle is perhaps the most telling. In general, we suggest people look for foods with lists that contain few and pronounceable ingredients. That list is ordered by the amount of each ingredient in the food, so look for items with whole grains and proteins higher in the list and processed flours and added sugars lower in the list. Do so, and you’ll be ahead of the label-reading game!

By Rick Elliott