How to Decode Food Labels
Anything you read on the front of a food package is often no more than an advertisement. On the front of the box, bottle, carton, or can, you’ll see healthy-sounding words and phrases like “all-natural,” “light,” “no trans-fats,” and “fat-free.” They’re there to give you a false sense of security – and sadly, they work, which is why food marketers use those words all the time.
But those words are as empty as the calories the foods often contain, and they’re there to distract you from the unhealthy ingredients inside the package. The back of the package – on the list of ingredients and the Nutrition Facts label — is where the real truth lies. The problem is, decoding that truth can be complicated.
For example, the listed serving size will almost always be much smaller than what the package contains. You’ll need to check the serving size — and do a little math — to determine the amount of calories, sodium, saturated fats, and other harmful ingredients there are in a realistic serving size. There are also a few target numbers and percentages that will be important to keep in mind.
As always, I’m here to help you cut through the confusion.
Much of the advice you’re about to read was adapted from the great work of Dr. Jeff Novick, an expert dietician and nutritionist who has helped demystify food labels and the fundamentals of a healthy diet through his writings and presentations.
Think of this as my little spin on Dr. Novick’s excellent advice. Here are some clear guidelines to making sense of those back-of-the-package food labels, determining exactly what you’re putting in your body, and making smart dietary choices based on the nutritional value of packaged foods.
Rule #1: Be skeptical of every word on the front of the package
I know I already covered this right off the bat, but I really need to drive this point home: Every word you read on the front of a box, can, bag, or carton should be considered an advertisement or a marketing pitch. The information printed there is often confusing or overstated. American food manufacturers and processing companies will try to trick you by using certain words and phrases.
Even government-approved terms such as “low-fat” and “light” don’t tell the whole story. These products may still be high in fat content, as well as sugar, salt and empty calories. “Light” ice cream, for example, may still pack in 4 to 5 grams of fat per serving — and “light” and “regular” varieties of ice cream may not differ much calorically.
That’s why it’s so important to take all the ingredients into account. Never evaluate a product based on one item, such as its fat, cholesterol, sugar, carbohydrate or salt content. Attempting to cash in on the latest diet or nutrition craze, many companies promote their products based on a single item despite other unhealthy aspects.
For instance, “fat-free” foods are often full of sugar and calories. A box of crackers may advertise that it’s “trans fat free,” but in the ingredient list you may find fats like palm oil and coconut oil that may be just as harmful as the trans fats they replace.
Think of the list of ingredients or Nutrition Facts label on the back as a report card: A product needs to pass all its classes, not just excel in one area and flunk the rest. To graduate onto your plate, a product must meet several criteria.
Rule #2: Do the math to calculate a realistic serving size
Right under the “Nutrition Facts” header on the back of the package, you’ll find two important pieces of information: The “serving size” for the product, and the number of servings that are contained in the package.
A lot of the information on the Nutrition Facts label represents calories or ingredients per serving — and the full box, bag, bottle, or can is rarely the serving size. So, the first thing you’ll need to do is multiply the serving size and the number of servings contained in the package together.
A perfect example is cooking spray. Some popular cooking sprays have advertised that they have “zero calories per serving.” Well, maybe if you’re an ant: The serving size on the back is about 120th of an ounce, or about a 1/3 of a second spray. Is it even possible for a human being to spray for a third of a second? If you use the product like any normal person would, you’d coat the entire skillet with oil spray and tally up quite a few calories in the process — and oils contain 120 calories per tablespoon.
Rule #3: Now, calculate the calories in that realistic serving size
Multiply the number you calculated in the previous step by the number of calories per serving, and you’ll get the real amount of calories contained in the package.
For example, imagine you come across a beverage that has “110 calories per serving” printed on the label. All too many people think that means they’re drinking 110 calories. Hardly. There are likely multiple “servings” in that single bottle. In order to find the truth of what’s lurking inside that bottle, you’ve got to multiply the 110 calories by the total number of servings, which might be something like 2.5. Then you’ll realize that you’re actually downing a whopping 275 calories.
Don’t get too comfortable with “0s,” either. Many manufacturers use ridiculously small serving sizes, and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) permits manufacturers to “round down” to zero. As a result, some products advertised as calorie-free or fat-free are not.
Rule #4: Limit calories from fat to 20% or less
Depending on the product, you’ll find the calories per serving from fat right next to the total calories per serving on the Nutrition Facts label. And right under that, you’ll find details about the fat content of the product in the package. There are several things to keep in mind when assessing the fat content – and the types of fat – listed on the label.
The first important thing to look at is the percentage of total calories represented by fat: Divide the calories per serving from fat by the total calories per serving. You’ll need to do that math yourself, because it isn’t explicitly spelled out on the label.
20% or less is the magic number – and the lower the number, the better. For example, if your product has 100 calories per serving, then 20 calories maximum should come from fat. You should always try to target a lower percentage, especially if you are struggling with a heart condition or chronic disease. Many respected doctors have successfully helped patients prevent and reverse chronic illnesses through plant-based diets with a fat intake of around 10%-15% of total calories.
- Tip: This may sound like a lot of math to do in the grocery store, but here’s a shortcut that will help you calculate things easily. If the total calorie count listed on the package is a three-digit number — 150 calories, 350 calories or 400 calories, for example — just look at the first two numbers. That will immediately tell you what 10% of the total calories will be (15, 35 and 40 in those examples). Doubling that number will give you the 20% limit you’re looking for in calories from fat. So for a package containing 150 calories, 15 calories from fat will be 10% and 30 calories from fat will be 20%. For a package containing 350 calories, 35 calories from fat will be 10% and 70 calories from fat will be 20%. With a little bit of practice, you’ll be making those calculations at a glance.
Rule #5: Understand the types of fat in that food package
Next, you need to determine the types of fats hiding in that product. As I discussed in my post about the mantra of healthy eating, not all fats are created equal. There are fats that are healthy for you, and some fats are essential: For basic survival, we all need about 2-3% of our total calories to come from essential fats such as omega-3 fatty acids (alpha-linolenic acid) and omega-6 fatty acids (linoleic acid).
But of course, there are also fats that are devastating to your health. So the next thing you’ll look for on that ingredient list is bad fats: Saturated fats, trans fats, hydrogenated fats, and tropical oils.
Here are the fats that should make you drop that package and run: Saturated animal fats (lard, butter, chicken fat, etc.), saturated vegetable fats (coconut oil, cocoa butter, palm oil, palm kernel oil), and man-made saturated fats (margarine, shortening). “Partially hydrogenated” oils are the same thing as trans fat, and you should put these products back on the shelf. Make sure there are no saturated fats, hydrogenated fats, or tropical oils in the ingredient list, including lard, butter, coconut, cocoa butter, palm oils, shortening, margarine, chocolate, and whole and part-skim dairy products.
How about those good fats? Polyunsaturated fats (safflower, soybean, corn, and sesame oil) and monounsaturated fats (olive and canola oil) are far less harmful. But they’re not harmless! Even “good” oils are dense with calories. If you go overboard, your waistline may get out of line. Make sure the percentage of calories from fat are still 20 percent or less, even if the fat content comes from polyunsaturated or monounsaturated fats.
Rule #6: Steer clear of sodium and salt
America has a serious problem with salt and sodium. Nine out of 10 Americans consume too much sodium in their diets – and most Americans consume almost double the recommended amount.
This is a major part of our health crisis. Consuming too much sodium increases the risk of a number of serious illnesses, including heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, stomach cancer, kidney disease, and osteoporosis.
Human beings have been known to function just fine on as little as 585 mg of sodium per day.
The 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend that we consume an average of less than or equal to 1,500 mg of sodium per day for optimal health, with an upper limit not to exceed 2,300 mg per day. Even so, the average American consumes anywhere from 3,000-4,500 mg of sodium per day.
When it comes to sodium, ignore everything on the label. Dr. Jeff Novick has great advice on how to keep your salt intake in check, and it all comes down to these simple rules.
The milligrams of sodium number should NEVER exceed the number of calories.
Keep your calories-per-serving to sodium ratio at 1:1 or lower. If you are looking at a product that contains 100 calories per serving, then it should have 100 mg or less of sodium per serving. The lower, the better.
Understand the big sources of sodium in the Standard American Diet.
The vast majority of sodium intake in America comes from processed foods, restaurant foods, junk foods, and packaged foods. By reducing those, you will greatly reduce your sodium intake.
Get creative with your seasonings.
There’s never been a better time to put some healthy spice in your home cooking! Embrace the wide variety of flavors and ingredients available at your local grocery store. Fresh and dried peppers, onions, garlic, herbs, seasonings and spices from around the world… today’s stores are packed with more versatile ingredients than they ever have been.
Use a pinch or shake of something healthier.
There are plenty of herbs, spices and special no-salt seasonings available that are far less harmful than salt: Mrs. Dash, Spike, and Bragg Sprinkle Herb and Spice Seasoning are a few of my favorites. Not only are they much healthier, they’re far more flavorful than salt!
If you need a little salt flavor, go light and late.
Add just a sprinkle of salt to your plate at the dinner table — not to your food while you’re cooking it. It will drastically reduce the amount of sodium in your meal, and that tiny bit of salt will be more flavorful when you add just a pinch to your prepared food. This tip has the healthiest results once you’ve reduced your sodium consumption from store- and restaurant-bought foods.
Rule #7: Keep added sugars and sweeteners to a minimum
Just like fats, some types of sugar are far more harmful than others. Don’t be concerned about naturally occurring sugars, such as the ones in fruit. Added, refined or concentrated sugars are where the health risks lie.
Here’s the challenge: When it comes to sugar, the Nutrition Facts label doesn’t tell the full story. The label frequently lumps added sugars and naturally occurring sugars together as just “sugar.”
That’s why your best source of sugar information on packaged foods is the ingredient list. Food manufacturers are required to list ingredients in order of the highest to lowest weighted amount in the product. The higher an ingredient is on the list, the more of it a product contains.
If you see added sugar, refined sugar, or concentrated sugar in the first three to five ingredients on that list, put that package down and walk away. That’s the straightforward part.
Rule #8: Determine whether there are sugars and sweeteners in disguise
The harder part is identifying added, refined and high-calorie sweeteners in disguise. Many sweeteners that aren’t labeled as “sugar” really are.
That includes corn syrup, brown rice malt, rice syrup, maple syrup, molasses, honey, malted barley, and barley malt.
You should also look for any term that ends in “-ol” (sorbitol and malitol) or “-ose” (fructose and dextrose). These should be considered added or refined sugars as well. If you see any of them in the top three to five of the ingredient list, put that package back on the shelf.
Again, it’s best to use the ingredients list to determine what you need to know about sugar content. But if you’re using the Nutrition Facts label, it’s best to limit your added, refined or concentrated sugar intake to no more than 5 percent of the total calories listed for the product. That’s no more than two tablespoons per day for most people.
Rule #9: Understand the whole story about whole grains
Real whole grains, such as whole wheat, offer incredible benefits to your health. Their natural fibers, vitamins and nutrients reduce the risk of obesity, heart disease, type 2 diabetes, cancer, and stroke. That’s why fake whole grains are so dangerous: They give you a false sense of security.
What you’re really looking for on that ingredient list is whole-wheat flour or bran, which may appear much farther down. It’s important to scout out products that contain only whole grains.
Many bread and pasta products claim to be “whole wheat.” However, when you examine the ingredient list, you’ll find “wheat flour” right at the top. Wheat flour may sound healthy, but it is refined flour. That means its nutritional value – all those healthy fibers, vitamins and nutrients — have been stripped during processing. Even if it is listed as “unbleached” or “unbromated” wheat flour, it is still refined flour.
In order to be a true whole grain product that offers all that wonderful nutritional value, it must say these exact words: “Whole” as in whole wheat, “rolled” as in rolled oats, “stone-ground” or “cracked.” If it says anything other than those exact words — “wheat flour” and “enriched wheat flour,” for example — then it’s not whole grain.
Rule #10: Fortify your body with fiber
Fiber provides a wealth of benefits to your well-being, and fiber is a big reason why whole grains, beans, fresh fruits, and fresh vegetables are so healthy. In general, Americans aren’t eating enough fiber in their diet.
On average, American adults eat 10 to 15 grams of total fiber per day, while the USDA’s recommended daily amount for adults up to age 50 is 25 grams for women and 38 grams for men. Women and men older than 50 should eat 21 and 30 grams of fiber every day, respectively.
Look for at least 3 grams of fiber per serving — and more when possible — to meet your daily fiber requirement. As a rule of thumb, choose cereals with 6 or more grams of fiber per serving, breads and crackers with 3 or more grams per serving, and pasta with 4 or more grams per serving. Another strategy is to make sure that a whole-grain food has at least 1 gram of fiber for every 10 grams of carbohydrates.
Put in the work, and your food will return the favor
I know what you’re thinking: This seems like a lot of math, reading and time-consuming work to do at the grocery store. But trust me, it’ll be easy after the first few trips. Once you find those go-to healthy options for all your essentials, they’ll become automatic additions to your cart. Your health is worth a few extra seconds of work!
During your first few trips to the market, give yourself extra time to evaluate products. You’ll soon speed up! Once you’ve found products that you enjoy and that meet these healthy guidelines, shopping will become quick and easy over time.
Above all, remember the mantra: Whole foods/plant-based. Natural, unadulterated whole foods will pack the biggest nutritional punch, not packaged and manufactured products. Even when you find “acceptable” foods that have been processed and packaged, they should be only a minor part of your diet. Your most valuable grocery guide is nature itself.