How to Read Nutrition Labels

By Harper Wayne
Updated on 02. Jun. 2021

Nutrition labels can be hard to decipher. Here's how to get the most out of them.

share Share
bookmark_border Copy URL

Reading nutrition labels can be overwhelming at times. What should you look for? What information is more important? A lot can be misleading and we aren’t aware of it because all the nutrition information is on the back of all our products!

We all have different things we are looking for, but there are a few items on nutrition labels that you should be on the lookout for. When we aren’t making our own food, the FDA insured we are able to know the ingredients placed in the packaged goods on the shelf.  The FDA implements label requirements for foods under the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act and its amendments. This means that food labeling is required for most prepared foods like bread, cereal, canned and frozen foods, snacks, drinks, and more.  

1. Pay attention to serving sizes.

When looking at the calories of your item, always make sure to do the math regarding how many calories are in each serving size. If there is a high calorie content for just three crackers, you should find out what ingredients are filling up those calories. 

Added sugar can often bulk up the calorie count. If your juice has high calories due to being 100% fruit juice- you know the sugar is natural, and healthier than added sweeteners. 

2. Look out for trans and saturated fat.

Some specific things I like to look out for on my nutrition label are saturated fat, trans fat, sodium, and added sugars. While healthy natural fats are needed in our daily diet, saturated and trans fats are single-bonded fats which are not good for the body, and can result in issues such as blocked arteries and high cholesterol. I try to buy items that have fewer saturated and trans fats. This does not mean I only buy items with 0 of both, but that if you are just beginning to read a nutrition label and don’t want to be overwhelmed, making sure your items have a low or nonexistent saturated and trans fat count is a good way to pick healthy options.

3. Recognize the good stuff. 

Another easy way to help pick healthy options is to pay attention to the dietary fiber, vitamin D, calcium, iron, and potassium counts on nutrition labels. 

These nutrients are really beneficial to our daily diets, so the higher the count, the more good stuff you are putting in your body. Many people are deficient in Vitamin D especially and have to take a supplement for it, so being aware of your consumption of it is important!

4. Know your sugars.

Being aware of the fact that sugar comes in multiple forms other than the normal table sugar we use in baking is important. It is important because your nutrition label might list some of these:

- Cane sugar

- Sucrose

- High-fructose corn syrup

- Barley malt 

- Dextrose

- Maltose

- Lactose

If the nutrition label lists no sugar, but has a long list of ingredients, one or two of these might be in the ingredients. Knowing the names of these can help you make a healthier swap as well as keep yourself well educated about what you are consuming. Also be aware of zero-calorie artificial sweeteners that are added, in case you are sensitive to them.

5. Double-check what’s on the front of the box

A lot of packaged goods are designed to catch your attention, so be aware that what is promised at the front of anything you buy might not directly connect to the actual content of the food. If a product has a quality that catches your attention, check the back!

Some misleading slogans or words that you should check are:

Multigrain vs Whole grain: the difference here is that one most likely has refined grains (multigrain) while the whole grain is whole. It is important to double check the ingredients list on these to check which grains and how much are going into your bread, crackers, and so on. 

Natural: This does not indicate all items in the food were natural, it can pertain to only one source being 100% natural so it is important to check how long the ingredient list is on the back. 

Organic: Organic does not equal healthy in the processed food line. 

No Sugar Added: This is where it is important to see if sugar substitutes have been added or artificial sweeteners. 

Low Fat: some low fat items have more sugar in them to combat the fat being taken out.

Fruit-Flavored: Some foods say they have “natural flavoring” but in reality it is a chemicals that make it taste like fruit. Check on the back to see if it actually contains fruit or fruit juice. 

Zero Trans Fat: Check and see how large or small the serviing size is. If it has low trans fat, but is a minute serving size then the product most likely still contains the trans fat. 

6. Count your ingredients.

Overall, if you want something that is easy to digest or is “better” for me, I try to find food items that contain less ingredients. This way I am more likely to know all the ingredients that are listed. Also remember that ingredient lists are ordered from greatest to least, so whatever five ingredients are at the beginning of the list are most important for your consideration. 

Being aware of what you are eating is a great step into a healthy lifestyle. This doesn’t mean you have throw out everything in your pantry ASAP. But a slow education process helps implement small healthy habits in your daily life that will last a lot longer. 

Add comment