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How to Utilize Nutrition Labels

Rachel O'Reilly

My approach to food isn’t one that includes reading nutrition labels. I don’t count calories or track grams of fats and carbohydrates. Instead, I try my best to eat a mostly whole foods diet (foods that don’t even have a nutrition label), and cook as much as possible at home.

But I’m not a perfect human, so I don’t always eat foods cooked from scratch, and sometimes I need uncommon items or treats, especially in a pinch. Packaged bars (great for traveling), milk alternatives, marinades or sauces can be lifesavers on busy days. For foods like these, I always read labels and do my best to make a good choice.

But with all the numbers, weights, and percentages, nutrition facts labels can be confusing. The intention of the label seems to be showing helpful information, but what exactly should we be looking for? Here’s the scoop on just three things to look for in order to make an informed choice.

What am I looking at?

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has helpful articles on how to analyze nutrition facts labels. You can download this PDF of the below graphic with added information about each section.

3 Main Things to Look for

1. First, go straight to the ingredients list. Skip all of the strategic marketing that went into how an item was packaged and forego any special claims made on the front. Instead, head straight to the raw ingredients that were used. The ingredients are often listed just below the nutrition facts label. Note that ingredients are listed in descending order by weight, so the ingredients listed first will make up the largest portion. For instance, if bread is labeled as “whole wheat” but has the ingredient “enriched bleached flour” listed first,  it means there’s more enriched bleached flour than wheat flour.

Often what’s listed on the ingredient list is enough to tell you whether or not to put the item back on the shelf. My simple rule of thumb is this: eat foods with few ingredients, and make sure those ingredients are recognizable. If I turn around a package to find a long list of multisyllable words that sound like they came straight from a lab, I stop and reconsider if I really need all those things in my body. More times than not, I convince myself that I can make the item at home with way healthier ingredients.

Tip: Whenever I buy milk alternatives, like almond, I always look for just one word: carageenan. Studies on carageenan have mostly been administered on lab animals and the jury is still out on its safety. Animals studies, though, have shown carageenan to be disruptive to digestion and potentially pro-inflammatory.

2. Sugar. Sugar is one of the main culprits behind overeating, weight gain, cardiovascular disease, many chronic inflammatory diseases and more. And if you thought you read the ingredients list without coming across the word “sugar,” chances are it was disguised under another name. Learn more about that here

The less sugar the better, so compare brands or choose one that has no sugar at all. Foods like yogurt, nut butters and milk alternatives often have non sugar variations. Just two teaspoons (about 8 grams) of sugar is enough to throw off our body’s ideal level of blood sugar, so eat sweets as part of a main meal, or eat consciously and enjoy every morsel.

3. Serving Size. Lastly, if an item has gotten ‘cleared’ on ingredients and sugar, make sure to check the serving size, especially if trying to practice portion control. Some foods will have a small serving size that is hardly comparable to how much you actually eat, such as cookies or chips. These are delicious tasting foods that are easy to overeat!  Some people do really well with portioning, and others (including myself) do not. If I find myself looking at a serving size, it’s usually another clue that the item will have to be limited in some way, so I may as well just put it back or look for a smaller amount (like those single-serving packets of nut butters). 

To make your life a lot easier and avoid having to analyze labels, switch to a mostly whole foods diet. When at the grocery store, stick to the perimeter of the store where most of the fresh produce and food lives. When buying foods like whole fruits and whole vegetables, or meat/seafood from the butcher, you don’t have to wonder about weird ingredients or numbers. Instead, food coming in its unadulterated, straight-from-the-earth form will be naturally satiating and nutritionally balanced. Calories, fats, carbohydrates, vitamins, minerals, etc. will all take care of themselves when delivered via Mother Earth’s natural creations.