Sometimes, trying to determine whether a packaged food’s nutrition facts mean it’s healthy for you (or at least sort of healthy for you) can feel about as confusing as reading Ulysses after a few glasses of wine. Big, bright labels declaring an item “low-fat” or “low-sugar” might sound promising. But then you flip over the package to discover a list of ingredients longer than your family tree.
Thanks to the FDA’s nutrition facts updates, decoding packages should get easier. The government now requires large, easy-to-read numbers for calories, servings per container and serving size. And the serving size info will reflect what people typically eat, rather than what’s suggested (for example, a full 15-ounces of soup rather than half of it). Finally, added sugar will stand out as its own category.
But even with these changes, some info can be tricky to decipher. Luckily, a few sound strategies can help you cut through the confusion to identify packaged foods that won’t mess with your health. Follow these six steps to simplifying nutrition labels and finding good-for-you groceries.
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6 Steps to Easily Deciphering Nutrition Labels
1. Make sure you can identify all the ingredients.
Here’s a simple way to start a food product assessment: Read the whole ingredient list, and take note of whether you actually know what each ingredient is. “If there is an item listed that you are unfamiliar with, I recommend looking it up before consuming it,” says Maxine Yeung, RD, NASM-CPT and founder of The Wellness Whisk.
As a general rule, shorter ingredients lists will be easier to decipher — and that usually says good things about the product. “A longer list is likely to include additives,” says Yeung.
2. Note the order of ingredients.
Manufacturers list ingredients from heaviest (or most prominent) to lightest, says Yeung. “[This] can guide you in choosing a healthier item.” For example, if a multigrain bread product lists white flour before whole wheat flour, you’ll know the bread is made primarily from refined carbohydrates. That means you’re probably better off choosing a different product, preferably one with whole grains listed higher up.
3. Check the serving size.
“It’s very important to pay attention to the serving size on the food label, because oftentimes what seems like a small package and individual serving may actually be two or more servings,” says Yeung. That means you could consume more calories, fat, salt and sugar than intended. (One reason the FDA is requiring updates on serving size.)
4. Focus on what’s most relevant to your personal needs.
“It’s important to pay attention to the ingredients that will affect your personal health the most,” says Yeung. For example, she says, if you have issues with blood pressure, you should pay particular attention to salt content. If you’re concerned about your blood sugar levels, make sure you’re evaluating total carbohydrates and added sugars. For those trying to achieve healthier cholesterol levels, watch out for unhealthy fats, like saturated or trans. And if you’re watching your weight, the calorie content will probably be most relevant. Try to keep all these numbers low, but especially those most important to your health, Yeung says.
5. Identify fat and sugar sources.
Sure, the quantity of fats and sugars can tell you something about the healthfulness of a given product. But where these nutrients come from also matters.
“Keep the amount of saturated fat you consume under seven to 10 percent of your daily total calories, and total fat intake should be 20 to 35 percent of your total daily calories,” says Yeung. “This means the majority of your fat intake should come from monounsaturated fats and polyunsaturated fats.” Yeung also recommends avoiding items with partially hydrogenated or hydrogenated oil, as these are just different names for trans fats.
The source of a product’s sugar is another crucial component. “Ultimately, any type of carbohydrate breaks down into sugar in your body,” says Yeung. “However, with sugar from natural sources (such as fruit) you also get vitamins, minerals, fiber and water, which helps better manage sugar levels in your body. You want to limit the amount of added sugar as much as possible.” That includes maple syrup, cane sugar, brown rice syrup and honey.
6. Don’t get fooled by front-label claims.
“Front-label claims can be helpful in narrowing down items, such as choosing a gluten-free product if you have a [sensitivity] to gluten,” says Yeung. But these labels can also be misleading. In fact, a study from earlier this year found front-label claims may lend people a false sense of confidence that they’re purchasing healthy foods. On the contrary, many of these products actually had worse nutritional profiles than those without those claims.
“Oftentimes when companies eliminate or reduce fat, sugar or salt in a product, they will use one of the others to help flavor the product,” says Yeung. “For example, a fat-free product may have a lot of added sugar. This can increase the amount of calories and lead to an increase in fat stores.”
Also, note that “reduced” doesn’t mean “low.” “Reduced fat or reduced salt doesn’t mean the product is low in fat or salt,” says Yeung. “‘Less salt’ just means the product has at least 50 percent less salt than in the original food, and ‘reduced salt’ means the product has at least 25 percent less salt than the original food. The product has to say ‘low sodium’ or show 140 mg of salt or less per serving to actually be a low-salt food.”
Final Food for Thought
Reading food labels doesn’t have to feel impossible enough that you give up and just buy whatever it is you’re holding. Use these strategies to break down the nutrition facts and easily figure out what’s good for you (and what’s not) so you can make the best decision for your body. And remember, most vitamin- and mineral-rich foods don’t require labels.