Your How-To Guide for Reading Nutrition Labels
By Isabel Smith, MS, RD, CDN
So you’re shopping in the grocery store, and you’re looking for a simple item that should be easy to find; however, you find yourself in a predicament because you find that there are so many similar products with so many different nutrition labels and ingredients. Suddenly, the task of finding the right product seems so much harder than you’d thought it would. You’re not alone.
When you find yourself in that kind of situation, how do you navigate the right food choice? How do you properly read labels to ensure that you choose the healthiest product?
Here’s a few tips to help you on your next grocery trip.
1. Read the Ingredients
You should always start with the ingredients label, because this can be your first line of defense when it comes to choosing a product or products loaded with garbage. My favorite rule of thumb is if you can’t pronounce one or a few of the ingredients on that list, then put the product back.
2. Identify What to Avoid
On the ingredient list you want to look for obvious sources of chemicals (besides those with long and hard-to-pronounce names) in addition to sources of hidden sugar (invert sugar, fruit juice puree, glucose syrup, brown rice syrup and more), sources of monosodium glutamate or MSG (like glutamate, glutamic acid and more), artificial colors (red #40, blue #1 and more) and artificial sugars and sugar alcohols as well (sucralose, aspartame, acesulfame K, maltitol and more). Additionally, you may also come across certain products that are able to sneak trans fats into their food (like processed peanut butters) without labeling on the outside. To catch these, look for things like fully or partially hydrogenated vegetable oils. If you’re not sure exactly what a certain ingredient means when you’re standing in the aisle, simply pull out your smart phone (if you have one) and look up the ingredient on the internet before you purchase. Sometimes I also find it helpful to ask knowledgeable store personnel if you’re unsure as the consumer what it is that you might be purchasing.
3. Check the (Nutrition) Facts
Besides the ingredient label, the other key part of properly sussing out a food or product that has a label and a package is to read the nutrition facts panel (this is the one with all the numbers and percentage numbers).
Before we go into this, I find that many of my clients get fairly confused about what the % number means on the label- so let’s give that a definition. That percentage number means that based on a 2,000 calorie diet, this product (whatever the product is) provides X% of the total recommended amount of that nutrient in one day. For example, if you see that there’s 4 grams of fat for example and there’s a 5% next to this number, it would mean that if one was following a 2,000 calorie diet, this product would give 5% of the total recommended daily fat amount for any given day.
When it comes to the second part of the label reading- the nutrition facts panel, the recommendations for what to look for when identifying foods has just been changed a bit in the latest 2015 Dietary Guidelines, so here’s a few tips and things for you to look for:
- Portion size: Whenever you pick up a new food, it’s important to see how many servings come in a portion size, so that you can better gauge how much of the product is contained in one serving. Although calories aren’t everything, it’s important to have an idea of total intake so that you can better balance calorie and overall intake.
- Fat: Fat won’t make you fat, but you want to look at the label and find products with the least amount of trans and saturated fats. On the label look for the type of fat to be from mono and polyunsaturated fats when able (the label will list this); these are the heart-healthier fats.
- Cholesterol: Cholesterol is another nutrient in the spotlight in the new dietary guidelines. Cholesterol has always been a hotly debated topic and newer research is suggesting that dietary cholesterol may play less of a role than we once thought in blood cholesterol, so there are currently no limits on dietary cholesterol intake when it comes to daily recommendation – but this doesn’t mean that you should necessarily forget that it’s important to be mindful of how much of it you’re eating.Be conscious and pay attention, but know for most of us it’s safer to eat products with some more cholesterol (like egg yolk!). It’s also important to note that plant-based foods don’t contain cholesterol and foods like whole grains and veggies along with healthy fats like nut and avocado may actually help to reduce cholesterol. So overall there isn’t the same focus on cholesterol on food packages as there once was- but this is still a message to be mindful!
- Sodium: This is an important one to take a look at, because many packaged foods will have loads of sodium for both taste and shelf-life. The recommendation is still about 2,300 mg daily, and on packaged foods I like to recommend 250-300 mg sodium per serving whenever able.
- Sugar: Sugar is in the spotlight in the latest iteration of the dietary guidelines, and as mentioned above, there are many ingredients that food companies can sneak sugar into the food we eat. When it comes to sugar, what’s important is to both read the ingredients label to find out where the sugar is coming from (for example, apple puree versus cane sugar), but overall it’s key to find the products with the least amount of added sugar. Overall, it is now recommended that Americans eat less than 12 teaspoons of added sugars daily (this excludes sugar from natural sources like fruit!).
- Fiber: In short, the more of this in the food you’re choosing, the better. I like to recommend at least 3-5 grams of fiber per serving, because fiber can help promote satiety by slowing digestion. Fiber is also good for both digestion and for your heart as well.
- Protein: Protein is another focus point of the new dietary guidelines, as it should be especially when it comes to packaged foods. Foods that you buy that contain some protein can also help you stay fuller for longer because it too helps to slow digestion. Look to avoid protein sources from any type of modified soy (unless it’s organic tofu or edamame) – for example soy protein isolate or concentrate- both are fairly processed. Nut products, vegan protein powders, animal proteins and eggs are good examples of foods who’s nutrition labels would contain protein. Remember to look for organic protein sources when able (especially when it comes to meat and dairy).
4. Eat More Foods with No Labels
As a general rule of thumb, try to eat most foods that don’t contain a nutrition label (like fruits and vegetables) and be mindful of the foods you consume that are packaged. Be a savvy consumer and do your research and label comparison when able because this can help you ensure that you’re eating nutritious, whole foods.