How to Read the Nutrition Facts Label?
Here’s my four-step crash course on how to read food labels so that you can differentiate between mislabeled junk and truly healthy foods.
Step 1: Serving Size
The absolute most important part of the Nutrition Facts table is to note the serving size. Manufacturers often strategically choose the serving size to make the rest of the table look good. Small serving = small calories/fat/carbs. So, it’s tricky.
All the information in the table rests on the amount chosen as the serving size. And, since every manufacturer chooses their own, it’s often difficult to compare two products.
Let’s use an example – plain, unsalted walnuts from Costco.
As you can see, right under the Nutrition Facts header is the serving size. That is a ¼ cup or 30 g. This means that all the numbers underneath it are based on this amount.
FUN EXPERIMENT: Try using a measuring cup to see exactly how much of a certain food equals one serving. You may be surprised at how small it is (imagine a ¼ cup of walnuts).
Step 2: Study the Ingredients List
Product ingredients are listed by quantity — from highest to lowest amount.
This means that the first ingredient is what the manufacturer used the most of.
A good rule of thumb is to scan the first three ingredients, as they make up the largest part of what you’re eating.
If the first ingredients include refined grains, a type of sugar, or hydrogenated oils, you can assume that the product is unhealthy.
Instead, try choosing items that have whole foods listed as the first three ingredients.
In addition, an ingredients list that is longer than two to three lines suggests that the product is highly processed.
Step 3: Do not let the Claims on the Front Fool you
One of the best tips may be to completely ignore claims on the front of the packaging.
Front labels try to lure you into purchasing products by making health claims.
In fact, research shows that adding health claims to front labels makes people believe a product is healthier than the same product that doesn’t list health claims — thus affecting consumer choices.
Manufacturers are often dishonest in the way they use these labels. They tend to use health claims that are misleading and in some cases false.
Examples include many high-sugar granola bars and breakfast cereals like whole-grain Cocoa Puffs. Despite what the label may imply, these products are not healthy.
This makes it hard for consumers to choose healthy options without a thorough inspection of the ingredients list.
Step 4: Watch Out for the Following Misleading Claims
These are often used to mislead consumers into thinking that unhealthy, processed food is good for them
- Light. Light products are processed to reduce either calories or fat. Some products are simply watered down. Check carefully to see if anything has been added instead — like sugar.
- Multigrain. This sounds very healthy but only means that a product contains more than one type of grain. These are most likely refined grains — unless the product is marked as whole grain.
- Natural. This does not necessarily mean that the product resembles anything natural. It simply indicates that at one point the manufacturer worked with a natural source like apples or rice.
- Organic. This label says very little about whether a product is healthy. For example, organic sugar is still sugar.
- No added sugar. Some products are naturally high in sugar. The fact that they don’t have added sugar doesn’t mean they’re healthy. Unhealthy sugar substitutes may also have been added.
- Low-calorie. Low-calorie products have to have one-third fewer calories than the brand’s original product. Yet, one brand’s low-calorie version may have similar calories as another brand’s original.
- Low-fat. This label usually means that the fat has been reduced at the cost of adding more sugar. Be very careful and read the ingredients list.
- Low-carb. Recently, low-carb diets have been linked to improved health. Still, processed foods that are labeled low-carb are usually still processed junk foods, similar to processed low-fat foods.
- Made with whole grains. The product may contain very little whole grains. Check the ingredients list — if whole grains aren’t in the first three ingredients, the amount is negligible.
- Fortified or enriched. This means that some nutrients have been added to the product. For example, vitamin D is often added to milk. Yet, just because something is fortified doesn’t make it healthy.
- Gluten-free. Gluten-free doesn’t mean healthy. The product simply doesn’t contain wheat, spelt, rye, or barley. Many gluten-free foods are highly processed and loaded with unhealthy fats and sugar.
- Fruit-flavored. Many processed foods have a name that refers to a natural flavor, such as strawberry yogurt. However, the product may not contain any fruit — only chemicals designed to taste like fruit.
- Zero trans fat. This phrase means “less than 0.5 grams of trans fat per serving.” Thus, if serving sizes are misleadingly small, the product may still contain trans fat
I hope this crash course in the Nutrition Facts label was helpful.
Do you have questions about it? If so, leave me a comment below or Write me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org
If you need help with eating well, schedule a discovery call with me. My clients feel better within their first week of our work together, including increased energy, decreased brain fog, healthier digestion and better mood.
Recipe (walnuts): Delicious and Super-Easy Walnut Snack
8 walnut halves
4 dates, pitted
Make a “date sandwich” by squeezing each date between two walnut halves.
Serve & enjoy!
Tip: Try with pecans instead.