Learning how to read food labels is a crucial skill if you want to be healthier. In fact, it might just save your life. Whether shopping for groceries or cleaning out your pantry, here are tips on how to read labels. Reading labels will help you understand what you are putting into your body, allowing you to make smarter choices. Why bother? Because food is not just fuel - it's medicine. Learn to read labels and choose foods that heal instead of harm.
How to Read Food Labels
Ideally your focus is foods without labels such as fresh, whole vegetables and fruit. Foods grown on a plant, not made in a plant are your healthiest options. Sometimes fresh foods come in net bags or wrapped for convenience at checkout. But many healthy foods do come in cans, packages, or frozen. Think of canned tomatoes, beans, coconut milk, canned pumpkin, nuts, intact whole grains and seeds like quinoa and rice, frozen berries or wild shrimp. These foods that are pantry staples, both dry and frozen, that help us get meals made when time is short or items are out of season.
Start With the Ingredient List
Whether you are shopping at the market or cleaning out your pantry, start by reading the ingredient list.
- Ingredients are listed in terms of proportion. The first ingredient listed is the primary and most abundant ingredient. The rest of the ingredients are listed in descending order by weight. The top three ingredients are mostly what you are eating.
- Look for labels with five or less ingredients. If it has more than five, put it back or toss it (there are exceptions).
- If a label starts with sugar, salt or something unhealthy, put it back or toss it.
- Look for labels that you can understand what the ingredients actually are. Ingredients that your grandmother would recognize, not something from a chemistry class.
- Can’t pronounce it, look for other options or toss it.
Look at the Nutrition Label
Reading nutrition labels can be confusing, but there is information to consider.
- Is the serving size realistic? Often not.
- Be wary of sugar content. Four grams = 1 teaspoon of sugar.
- Be wary of high sodium levels, a flag for highly processed foods. Guidelines say 2300 milligrams per day is the limit, and for many on a sodium restricted diet it could be far less.
- Labeling for allergy or sensitivity-inducing ingredients is often hidden. Look for ingredients such as eggs, dairy, soy, gluten, peanuts, and tree nuts. Labeling for hidden gluten is whole post by itself.
The Big, Bad Ingredients to Eliminate
- Partially hydrogenated oils or hydrogenated oils - the damaging trans fats. Don’t believe the label if it says zero grams. Read the ingredient label. Manufacturers are allowed to round down if there is a half gram or less, so there still might be trans fats. Zero in our diet is the goal.
- High Fructose Corn Syrup. Always the warning for low quality, processed foods and a toxic, deadly sweetener.
- Monosodium Glutamate (MSG), a chemical flavor enhancer. Look for anything hydrolyzed, autolyzed, yeast extract, glutamic acid, soy protein isolate and many more. It's another hidden threat to your health.
- Sugar. Understand that 4 grams = 1 teaspoon. Sugar is the master of disguise and hides under many names such as organic cane juice, honey, agave syrup, molasses, sucrose, brown rice syrup, corn syrup solids, to name a few and there are dozens. Anything that ends in “ose” such as maltose, dextrose, or sucrose.
- Carrageenan. An unnecessary food additive made from seaweed that adds texture to foods.
- Artificial colors and flavors. Toss the fake stuff.
- Artificial sweeteners. Toss things with Splenda, Aspartame, sucralose, and most sugar alcohols that end in “ol”. For some, they cause problems with digestion, may increase hunger, and slow your metabolism.
- "Natural” flavorings. They are anything but natural.
- Nitrites and nitrates, often found in cured meats like deli meats, hot dogs, sausages, bacon and linked to cancer.
Other Label Reading Tips
- Beware of health food claims and healthy names on front labels. Marketers try to convince us that their products are healthy to get us to buy when they may not be healthy at all. That marketing spin may be hiding some unhealthy truth. If a can or package has a health claim, be careful. They want you to invest in their bottom line not in your health.
- Unfamiliar ingredients? Type them into your search engine.
- When choosing canned foods, look for BPA-free cans. BPA is a synthetic estrogen and industrial chemical that leaches into food and drink from food cans and polycarbonate plastics. BPA disrupts our hormone levels and balance. Unsure? Call the company and ask.