Updated: Jun 26, 2020
Reading and understanding a nutrition label is one of the most important things you can do to take control of what you put into your body. Unfortunately, our food system does not always have our health and best interests in mind when they produce food and you can't always trust marketing claims and labels. Once you start taking the time to read nutrition labels, you'll be blown away by some of the ingredients put into foods you've been eating your whole life or feeding to your loved ones. And if you're already in the habit of reading nutrition labels - great! This can be a refresh and provide some additional insight on what you should be reading and focusing on when you're in the grocery store.
How to Navigate a Nutrition Label
1. Focus on the ingredients list
If there's one thing you should do when you look at a nutrition label, it is to read the ingredients list!
Product ingredients are listed by quantity — from highest to lowest amount. Always look at the first 3 ingredients because they make up the majority of the product.
The less ingredients, the better. Ideally there are no more than 5 ingredients in the food and you should recognize every ingredient (ie. know what they are or be able to envision them in your pantry).
Avoid foods with refined grains, any type of sugar or hydrogenated oil on the ingredient list.
Simple is better!
2. Be familiar with serving size and servings per container
Serving sizes are completely standardized and somewhat arbitrary -- each person's correct 'serving' size is determined by their hunger levels, age, genetics, physical activity and several other factors, not a government issued standard. That being said, I do recommend using the serving size as a reference point. Some people assume one container = 1 serving and this is not always the case.
Read the label to be aware of how many calories are in a serving and how many serving sizes are in a container/package.
3. Be careful of misleading marketing claims and false advertising
Ignore any claims on the packaging. Health claims on packaged food are designed to catch your attention and convince you that the product is healthy.
Take a look at the photos below. These Garden 'Veggie' chips with a big label on the front stating 'made with potatoes, spinach, peas and broccoli' sounds like a great alternative to a standard potato chip. Unfortunately, when you read the label, the product name and marketing is extremely misleading. The front label catches your eye and wants you to believe these are chips are full of veggies and nutrients. Turn it over and read the ingredient list: it's your standard potato chip and the LAST ingredients, meaning they make up the least amount of the product, are broccoli powder, pea powder and spinach powder.
4. Avoid added sugars
Making this a goal will be an absolute game-changer for your overall health, energy levels, digestion and cravings. Sugar has a cascade effect on our health — affecting our gut, mood, energy, sleep, cravings, immune system, and weight. Sugar can feel addicting. It is so much more than just will-power. The more sugar you eat, the more sugar you crave.
Increased sugar tolerance has been associated with an increased risk of depression, another major health concern. Evidence also shows a clear association between excessive sugar consumption and risk of obesity, type 2 diabetes, cancer, and heart disease, as well as many other chronic diseases.
Some nutrition labels will have 2 separate lines for sugars: total sugars and added sugars. Total sugars include both those that occur naturally in the food as well as added sugars. Added sugars are those added to the food during processing to enhance flavor, texture, shelf-life. See the below image for how added sugar is broken out and listed separately on on a nutrition label.
Once you start reading nutrition labels, you will be shocked by how many foods have sugar listed as an ingredient. More often than not, foods with a nutrition label have added sugar and almost all processed foods have sugar as an ingredient - even savory foods like bread and salad dressings can have added sugars.
Keep in mind that added sugar is not always listed as 'sugar' on an ingredient list. The food industry does a good job of trying to add 'hidden' sugars into food by listing under lots of different names. See below for all of the different names that sugar can be listed as on the nutrition label (it's a long list!).
Sugar may be listed by any of the following ingredients on a nutrition label. If you see any of these on an ingredient list, the food has added sugar.
Ultra-processed foods and breads, cheese, soups, and processed meats can be high in sodium and quickly add up throughout the day. Be mindful of your sodium intake particularly if you have increased blood pressure or heart conditions.
Most whole, unprocessed foods other than pure fat or protein contain fiber. Ultra-processed foods, candy and refined carbohydrates typically lack any fiber. Fiber is critical for gut health, digestion and satisfaction. Its slows the digestion of food, keep you satisfied for longer periods of time and helping balance your blood sugar response.
Avoid any refined grains or packaged products with a long list of ingredients and minimal or no fiber.
7. Stay away from artificial colors & dyes
Last but not least - avoid artificial colors and dyes. These are man-made chemical substances developed to change the appearance of food and give it bright & artificial color. These colors can be found across the entire food industry in foods like sports drinks, candy, baked goods, cereal, condiments and even some animal proteins and medications and cosmetics. Without realizing it, you may be ingesting these chemicals on a daily basis.
Ingestion of artificial colors and dyes is linked to possible side effects such as ADHD, cancer, and allergies. These links are particularly concerning given that a lot of the foods with these bright artificial colors are marketed to children.
On a food label, artificial colors & dyes may be listed as: red 40, yellow 5, blue 2 etc. Several of these are recognized as safe in the US and prevalent in our food supply. However, in Europe, most foods containing artificial dyes are required to have a warning label stating that the food "may have an adverse effect on activity and attention in children." To avoid having the warning label on products, many food companies use different ingredients in their products in different markets. See below for ingredient list comparisons of the same products in the UK vs. US. You'll see that the UK versions have replaced artificially made colors and dyes with naturally-derived food-based color extracts.
Make it a goal to eat the rainbow using whole, unprocessed foods that come from the Earth and not a chemical lab. Incorporate a ton of different colors in your diet to get a diversity of phytonutrients. Think fruits and vegetables not bright blue sports drinks, red candy, colorful cereals or bright yellow chips.
I hope this is helpful for you and provides some tips to utilize the next time you hit the grocery store. Got questions? Please don't hesitate to reach out to me via email or instagram.