A Simple Guide to Reading Food Labels

A Simple Guide to Reading Food Labels

I’m pretty sure my mom didn’t read food labels at the grocery store when I was a kid.  If she needed bread, she picked up a loaf of bread.  But back then, there weren’t as many bread choices as there are now.  In fact, grocery stores are exponentially larger today than they were just 30 years ago.  The number of foods available, and the variety in each of those foods has increased dramatically.  This shift has caused many people to start paying attention to food labels.  Reading food labels has become an important part of maintaining a healthy lifestyle, but it can be very tricky.  Read on for my best tips.

It may seem impossible to know how to navigate through the myriad of shelves at the grocery store without adding an hour to your shopping trip and without losing your mind, but I assure you it’s not.  Once you educate yourself and learn what to look for and what to avoid, it’s actually pretty easy.

Tip #1 – Skip the front

The only reason you need to look at the front of a food label is to identify the type of food you want.  Other than that, you can ignore most of the other stuff food companies like to add to the front of their labels.  The front of labels are used as an advertising site, where food companies try to lure you into buying their food with sometimes sneaky wording.  With the increased emphasis we are seeing on healthy foods, food companies have had to get smart about how to make their products seem healthier than they actually are.

An example of sneaky wording you might see on the front of a bread label is, “Made with whole grains!”  This one makes me so mad because so many people fall for it.  Consumers have been told that whole grains are healthier than refined grains, and this is totally true, but that bread claiming to be “made with whole grains” is a trap.  Most likely, that bread is mostly made with refined white flour with a little bit of whole grain added in.  So their claim that the bread is made with whole grains is actually true, but it sounds better than it is.  If you want to use the front of the label as a check for a true whole grain bread, then make sure it states, “Made with 100% whole grains.”  Then you know there is no fooling around.  Other grainy tricks include “multi-grain” and “12-grain.”

Better yet, don’t even pay attention to what the front of the label says.  It’s important to look past the pseudo-healthy phrases on the front, and read the back of labels thoroughly.  On the back is where you will find all of the nutrition information and a full list of ingredients.  You will learn so much more about a food from the back of the label than the front, so be sure to turn that package around.

Tip #2 – Study the ingredients list

Many people just read the nutrition information on the back and think that is good enough.  However, the ingredients list is where the real info about the food can be found.  Take that bread “made with whole grains.”  In the ingredients list, you would probably discover that the first ingredient is enriched wheat flour.  In case you don’t know, that is refined white flour, which you want to avoid.  Did you know that the ingredients are listed in order of highest quantity to lowest?  So the first ingredient will always be what the food is mostly made from.  In this case, we learn that the bread is made mostly from refined flour.  You may see further down in the list that there are some whole grains added in, but what’s the point?

Trans fats are another reason to read the ingredients lists.  The sneaky trick here is that food companies are legally allowed to put .5 grams of trans fats into a food and list it as 0 grams.  They still have to list it in the ingredients list, but it’s not going to be listed as “trans fats.”  So you would never know trans fats are in there unless you know what to look for on the ingredients list. What exactly do you need to look for?  Any sort of “partially-hydrogenated” oil is a trans fat.  Even if the nutrition panel says there are 0 grams of trans fats, if you see one of those oils listed in the ingredients, it’s in there.  And in case you didn’t know, trans fats are another thing to avoid.

The last big reason to scour the ingredients list is sugar. There are over 60 different names for sugar that can be listed on food labels.  That’s a crazy amount of terms to be on the lookout for!  Check out this list I found.  How many of these have you seen on food labels?

  • Agave nectar
  • Barbados sugar
  • Barley malt
  • Barley malt syrup
  • Beet sugar
  • Brown sugar
  • Buttered syrup
  • Cane juice
  • Cane juice crystals
  • Cane sugar
  • Caramel
  • Carob syrup
  • Castor sugar
  • Coconut palm sugar
  • Coconut sugar
  • Confectioner’s sugar
  • Corn sweetener
  • Corn syrup
  • Corn syrup solids
  • Date sugar
  • Dehydrated cane juice
  • Demerara sugar
  • Dextrin
  • Dextrose
  • Evaporated cane juice
  • Free-flowing brown sugars
  • Fructose
  • Fruit juice
  • Fruit juice concentrate
  • Glucose
  • Glucose solids
  • Golden sugar
  • Golden syrup
  • Grape sugar
  • HFCS (High-Fructose Corn Syrup)
  • Honey
  • Icing sugar
  • Invert sugar
  • Malt syrup
  • Maltodextrin
  • Maltol
  • Maltose
  • Mannose
  • Maple syrup
  • Molasses
  • Muscovado
  • Palm sugar
  • Panocha
  • Powdered sugar
  • Raw sugar
  • Refiner’s syrup
  • Rice syrup
  • Saccharose
  • Sorghum Syrup
  • Sucrose
  • Sugar (granulated)
  • Sweet Sorghum
  • Syrup
  • Treacle
  • Turbinado sugar
  • Yellow sugar

Just so we’re clear, sugar is sugar.  Whether it’s organic cane syrup, honey, agave nectar, or fructose, it’s all sugar, and you need to watch your total intake no matter what type it is.  You also want to notice where on the list sugar is listed.  Remember, the higher up on the list you see sugar, the higher the concentration of sugar will be in that food.

Tip #3 – Check the nutrition information

The nutrition panel does contain some important information too. However, many people only look at the calories and/or fat in a food and decide based on that.  There is so much more to consider!  You should also be looking at the types of fat, sugar, carbs, protein, sodium, and fiber in a food.

Fat is not the enemy, so instead of looking at how many fat grams there are total, look at the breakdown of saturated fats vs. unsaturated fats.  You want a higher number of unsaturated fats and a lower number of saturated fats. Select products with as few sugar grams as possible.  A good rule is 5 grams or less per serving.  Don’t forget that there may be sugar hiding in foods you didn’t expect it to be in, like salad dressings, crackers, and cereals.  When it comes to protein and fiber, higher amounts are good.  They will both help you feel fuller longer and give you lots of energy.  On the other hand, sodium numbers should be kept lower.

If this information still seems overwhelming to you, there are some great apps out there that can help do the work for you.  But I do encourage you to educate yourself too.  Just like with anything new you are learning, practice will help you become more adept at reading food labels.


2 thoughts on “A Simple Guide to Reading Food Labels”

  • Thank you very much for this very helpful article. I knew some things, but not all. In addition, thank you for the list of sugar words; I can tell those to my diabetic daughter.

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