how to read food labels 

In a perfect world, we would have plenty of time to spend only shopping the perimeter of the grocery store and cook everything from scratch…but that’s not the world we live in. 

Oftentimes we do need to venture into the middle aisles of the grocery store and buy shortcut items in boxes and packages. Going into those aisles educated and informed can make a big difference in aligning what you eat to how you want to feel!

Consumers are more health-conscious than ever, so food manufacturers need to use misleading tricks to convince people to buy their products – especially the processed ones.

The front of a food package has one purpose: to make you buy the product. 

There are very little restrictions and rules as to what food companies are allowed write on those front labels, so food companies often to use health claims that are misleading to trick people into thinking their product is healthier than it actually is. That makes it hard on us as consumers to navigate what’s actually “healthy” and what’s not.

This has even been studied: research shows adding health claims to front of package labels affects people’s choices by making them believe a product is healthier than the same product that doesn’t list claims, and therefore more likely to purchase it. 

So ignore the claims on the front of the package, and focus on what’s really inside. Become a food label detective.

How to Read Food Labels

The very first thing I recommend looking at on the package is the list of ingredients in the product. That way you can read what’s truly inside of this item, and make a decision if you want to put those things in your body. It allows you to make an empowered choice about what you want in that moment! 

Then move up to the Nutrition Facts label. Nothing on here matters at all if you decide you won’t want to put those ingredients in your body, so save yourself time and look here after reading the ingredients (more on what to look for below!).

The very first thing I recommend looking at on the Nutrition Facts is the serving size. That way you can picture what that amount looks like in your head as you read other lines. 

The rest of what you look at really depends on you and your health goals.

For me personally, I like knowing how much sugar is in something. By this stage, I know what the sugar is made up of because I read the ingredients list, so I know if those 31g come from high fructose corn syrup or dates for example. There is 1 teaspoon of sugar in 4g of sugar, so divide the grams you see in a label by 4 to visualize how many teaspoons are in there.

Next, based on my health goals, I find it helpful to look at sugar in comparison to how much fat and protein are in the product. Eating fat and protein with sugar help us avoid blood sharp sugar spikes and slow down the release of glucose in the body, so when it makes sense and is doable for me, I like to see if the label reflects that or if I can maybe add something when I eat it to balance it out. 

You’ll notice I didn’t mention looking at calories. I personally don’t find that information very important. Check out this post for more information on that.

How to Read Food Labels

So now we know looking at the list of ingredients is super important, but what are we supposed to be looking for in there?

I love this acronym from Registered Dietitian Dawn Jackson Blatner: C.R.A.P.

I highly recommend NOT using this as a hard and fast rule, but just a tool to help bring awareness to the ingredients you choose to or not to put in your body at any given moment.

Here’s a breakdown with examples:

Chemicals: Did you know the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) allows more then 10,000 additives in our food supply? About 1/3 of them haven’t undergone complete testing to ensure they’re safe for us to eat/drink. Many have even been linked to increase health risks in humans and animals, and a good number of them are banned in Europe, but not the US.

Examples: azodicarbonamide, carrageenan, potassium bromate, soy isolate, brominated vegetable oil, partially hydrogenated vegetable oil, monocalcium phosphate, sodium aluminum phosphate, DATEM, dimethylpolysiloxane

Refined Flour & Sugar: These ingredients have been processed and refined, and in many cases stripped of helpful macro and micronutrients like fiber, iron, and B vitamins. 

Examples: refined flour, all-purpose flour, enriched wheat, high fructose corn syrup, white and brown sugar, white rice, corn starch, anything ending in -ose

Artificial Sweeteners, Colors & Flavors: Did you know most artificial flavors and colors are derived from petroleum and crude oil or contain MSG bi-products? Studies have linked regular exposure to nervous system damage, depression, headaches, fatigue, allergies, brain damage, seizures, nausea, tumors, and many types of cancer.

Examples: caramel coloring, saccharin, aspartame, acesulfame-potassium, dyes like Red #40 and Yellow #5, diacetyl, or just plain “artificial flavoring”

Preservatives: Did you know that while you don’t want your chips or canned goods to go bad on the shelf, despite their important function, they can pose a number of serious health risks including increased risk of heart disease, asthma-like reactions, cancer, and hyperactivity in children?

Examples: sodium nitrate/nitrite, BHA, TBHQ, BHT, heptyl paraben, and propyl gallate

Also to me and my goals, the quality of ingredients is really important. One symbol I do look for on the front of packages is the USDA Organic symbol.

In order for food products to be certified as USDA Organic, it must adhere to certain strict guidelines, like no toxic synthetic pesticides or herbicides are used in harvesting (including any ingredients used to make up the product) and no use of genetically modified organisms.

Regular exposure to synthetic pesticides has been shown in many studies to increase risk for things like GI issues, diabetes, heart disease, neurodegenerative diseases like Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and MS, allergies, and antibiotic resistance. 

The dominant ingredient in Roundup is glyphosate, which is also an endocrine disruptor. It mimics or blocks the action of our body’s hormones. Messing with hormones is dangerous because they have so many important functions in our bodies. They control our growth and development, our weight, mood, energy, sleep quality, organ performance, and more.