The Right Way to Read a Food Label: Don’t Overlook the Fine Print

Clients love to tell me about the new snack bar or cereal they found at the grocery store. They tell me how it’s all natural or full of whole grains. I hate bursting their bubble when I ask how much sugar it has.


In your quest to be a healthy and fit you need to be a vigilant food detective.   You can’t trust the health claims on the front of the box. You have to read the back of the box, the ingredient list in particular, to really understand what is (or isn’t) in the oatmeal or protein bar you’re about to buy. Unfortunately, it’s not easy deciphering food labels. Without sounding too much like a conspiracy theorist, I think they do it on purpose.

The marketing team believes if they highlight the words “natural”, “light”, or “reduced” on the label we, the consumer, won’t look any further than that. We will simply trust that the product is good for us, load up our carts and go on our merry way.

The problem is a lot of people do just that. This is where they often get into trouble. You have to read the label to get the real story of what’s going on. Even on products you buy regularly you need to check in every so often to make sure they haven’t changed anything without telling you. Do a quick scan of the products going in your cart and look for these 5 things:

  1. Serving Size
    Don’t be so sure that a bottle of juice or a small bag of granola is just one serving. More often than not what appears to be a single serving package of chips or beverage has at least two servings. You could take in double or triple the calories without really even noticing.
  2. Trans Fat
    The label may say trans fat free, but to get the real story you need to read the ingredient list. If anywhere in the ingredient list you see hydrogenated oils or partially hydrogenated oils, then the product contains trans fats. The catch is if there are less than .5 grams per serving they can legally claim it is trans fat free.
  3. Sodium
    Reduced sodium or lower sodium on the label doesn’t always mean low sodium. Check the Nutrition Facts for the amount of sodium per serving. The latest guidelines suggest somewhere between 1500 and 2300 mg of sodium per day (depending on your current health status and risk profile). Pick up one of those “healthy” frozen entrees and you could easily be getting 1/3 of your recommend daily sodium intake in one sitting. Instead, make your own soup or beans in the slow cooker. Go fresh or frozen for veggies and skip the canned goods.
  4. High Fructose Corn Syrup
    HFCS is a controversial subject but I say error on the side of caution and steer clear. It pops up a lot of unexpected places like ketchup, canned beans, lite yogurt and pancake syrup. You can’t assume isn’t there just because the product isn’t a sweet treat.
  5. Fiber and Whole Grains
    We want fiber! Often we see wheat and assume fiber and whole grains are there.   It’s critical to check two things: the actual grams of fiber per serving and where the whole grains are listed on the ingredient list. I’ve seen whole wheat breads with less than one gram of fiber per slice but I say shoot for at least 2g per slice. Make sure the whole grain ingredient is within the first 5 on the ingredient list, not  somewhere near end.

The FDA will be tackling some of these issues with its proposed label updates but those changes are two years away! In the meantime, remember to look for these 5 things on your next shopping trip. I would love to hear any additional tips you have for navigating the mysteries of food labels.

Also Read:

Food Label Glossary Decodes Package Marketing

Slammin’! Food Labels Get First Major Update in 20 Years

Making Sense of the New Healthy Food Labels


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