How to Read Food Labels like a Pro


Deciphering food labels can be tricky. 

There are several aspects of a food label to consider before making your purchase. 

This article will go over in detail the various components of a nutrition label that can be confusing for consumers. In an ideal world, we would limit the amount of processed foods we buy. The majority of our purchases would be from whole foods, as fresh as possible. By purchasing foods containing only one ingredient it would make it extremely easy for us to know exactly what we are putting in our body.

However, for many it is simply not possible to completely avoid all foods that have more than one ingredient. Let's go over a few good rules of thumb when it comes to interpreting food labels.

~Serving Size ~ Ingredients list ~ Label claims ~ Hidden ingredients ~

Serving Size

The first aspect of a nutrition label to consider is the serving size. This is a list of the calories and nutrients in one standard portion of the product (chosen by the manufacturer).

The nutrient facts on this portion can be misleading for the average consumer because this serving size may be much much smaller than what a person will have in one sitting. A classic example is the serving size listed on the nutrition label of a popular energy drink. Let's take a look:

This label states that one serving of this energy drink contains 100 calories and 27 grams of sugar. However, this is for only 8 ounces, or half of the can of the drink. More than likely, a person will consume the entire can throughout the day, or even all at once, giving them a total of 200 calories and 54 grams of sugar. This is the equivalent of consuming 13 ½ cubes of sugar (4 grams of sugar = 1 sugar cube). 

Be cautious when choosing packaged drinks and sodas because these can contain high amounts of sugar which can cause a spike to your blood sugar and insulin, increasing your risk of developing Type 2 diabetes (1). By creating a tiny serving size, food manufacturers trick the consumer into thinking they are consuming far less calories and nutrients than they actually are. Manufacturers will also use the “tiny serving size scheme” with other products, sometimes even considering a portion of a single cookie as 1 serving size! Be sure to carefully read the serving size on the nutrition label and multiply what you consume by the stated nutrition facts in order to determine the total amount that you are consuming.

Ingredients List

When scanning the ingredient list of a product, here is an important fact to keep in mind: ingredients on a label are listed by quantity, from highest to lowest (this applies to other products as well, like beauty and cosmetic products). Though it is best to avoid products that have long ingredient lists, carefully scrutinize the top 3-5 ingredients, as these are what the product is mostly composed of. Avoid products that have refined grains, sugar, or hydrogenated oils at the top of the ingredients, as these indicate that the product is highly processed and has little to no nutritional value. Aim to purchase products that have as few ingredients as possible and look for whole, unprocessed ingredients at the top of the list.

Label Claims

What with all the buzz words floating around the supermarkets these days- “Keto! Sugar-free! Low-fat! Cholesterol-free!” - it can be confusing to confidently choose healthy products for yourself and your family.

Here are a few of the claims on food labels that can be misleading or even just downright false.

“Cholesterol-free”

Cholesterol gets a bad rap. Yes, it is good to monitor our cholesterol levels, to avoid eating lots of animal fat, and to ensure we don't develop high levels of LDL (“bad”) cholesterol. However, eating  small amounts of cholesterol from humanely raised, organic animal foods is not necessarily unhealthy. Cholesterol is essential for helping our body to create essential hormones like estrogen, cortisol, and testosterone. Cholesterol is also important for giving our cell membranes their movement and fluidity. 

Fact: cholesterol is only present in foods containing animal products. This means that you will not find cholesterol in a product like cereal unless it contains animal products. Yet, cereal companies love to insert “Cholesterol-free!” all over their products as a marketing tactic. Do not be fooled by these marketing ploys.

“Trans-fat free”

Trans fats are rampant in processed foods. These are formed when vegetable oils are artificially hydrogenated in order to create stability in an otherwise liquid fat. They are used to give long shelf life to products. These kinds of fats are linked to heart disease and raising LDL cholesterol (2) and are found in products like packaged baked goods (such as cookies, cakes, and pies), refrigerated dough, fried foods, non dairy coffee creamer, margarine, and microwave popcorn.

In the United States, if a food contains less than 0.5 grams of trans fat in 1 serving, the food label can read as 0 grams of trans fat. However, this “small” amount of trans fat will accumulate quickly as you consume multiple servings of this product! Look out for the words “partially hydrogenated vegetable oil” (usually soybean, cottonseed, or canola oil) and avoid at all costs. 

References:

  1. https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/healthy-drinks/sugary-drinks/
  2. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/high-blood-cholesterol/in-depth/trans-fat/art-20046114
  3. https://www.health.harvard.edu/family-health-guide/trans-fat-labeling