How to read food labels

Updated: Sep 20, 2020

When eating healthy, you will have a diet plan sketched out for you by your nutritionist or you personally may be interested to keep a check on what goes in your plate, for this you must know what ingredients and nutrients you are consuming. When buying packed food you would want to read the nutritional facts label (and you should!) and often you it may seems gibberish to you. In this article I will simplify the contents of the label so that you can make healthier pick at your local (or online) market.


Servings:

First thing to start is with ‘serving size’ and ‘servings per container’. Serving sizes are usually given in familiar units such as cups to make it easier to realize how much of the product a person would generally consume; the label would provide you information about nutrients per serving but you may consume more or less than the general serving size on the label so your nutrient consumption may change accordingly. For example, the label says each serving is of 1 cup and every serving has 20 gm of sugar and if you eat one and a half cup of the product, then you will be consuming 30 gm of sugar. Servings per container are simply the total amount of general servings you can have from each container; again, your consumption may be different than the one considered by the manufacturer.


Calories (OMG!):

Most people think that this is the most important fact on the label but just like the calories themselves, this information is also often misunderstood. Yes, it is important to count calories but knowing what kind of foods are contributing to those calories should be your priority. Read this to learn more.


Daily values (!?):

These are percentages of a nutrient which the food will provide for an average person following a 2000 calorie daily diet. So for example if the label says ‘15%’ under ‘% daily value’ for total carbohydrates, then you shall be getting 15% of your carbohydrates you need in a day from the food the label is printed on. You can use this information to identify which nutrient the food is high and low in so you can make an informed choice; for healthy eating, you should choose food which keep sodium, sugars and saturated fats to 5% or less and contain vitamins, minerals and fiber at 20% or more. You can also balance out food containing a nutrient more with another having it in lesser amount; for example, if a food is high in saturated fats (40%) you can balance it out with one having less saturated fat later (15%) in a day. Now the next time you see a label you’ll notice that there are no %DV for total sugars and trans fat, this is because no reference values have been established yet.


Don’t let them health claims trick ya!:

Due to the recent migration of consumers towards healthy eating, manufactures have started to stick claims like “low sugar” and “natural” to attract the buyers. But not all of these claims are what they seem. You can take my advice and ignore the claims on the front and look for the real deal at the back. Below are some common claims which may be misleading.

Low calorie: to make this claim, the new product must have calories one third lesser than the original product of the same brand. But a ‘low calorie’ product of one brand may have same amount of calories as another brand’s ‘full’ calorie product.

Low carb and low fat: these foods are usually highly processed and may also be ‘low’ on other nutrients too and may just be empty calories.

Light: these foods are usually highly processed and watered down to reduce nutrients along with fats and carbs.

No added sugar: unhealthy additives which are technically not sugar may be used to replace sugar.

Gluten free: although they are a boon for people suffering from celiac disease, gluten free products which are supposed to have gluten in conventional forms may be highly processed and stripped of nutrients with added additives.

Zero trans-fat: according to regulations, to make this claim the product can only contain 0.5 gm trans fat per serving but if the serving size is small then 0.5 gm can still be a lot.

Multigrain: unless marked as whole grain, the manufacturer may simply add one more processed grain with the conventional grain (which also may be processed).

Made with whole grains: the product may very well contain whole grains but the amount used may be less.

Organic: a product may have been made using organically grown ingredients but that doesn’t necessarily make it a healthier choice. For example, eating too much of French fries made of ‘organic’ potatoes is still a junk food.

Natural: a manufacturer may have used a natural ingredient during processing of an item but it doesn’t necessarily make the complete product ‘natural’.

The ingredient list:

The ingredient list is not random, rather is in descending order of ingredients used by amount. So the ingredients used most are in the beginning and those used less are at the end. If first three items on the list are sugar, refined grains or hydrogenated oils then it is evident that the food is not too healthy for you. The next time when you read the ingredient list, you’ll come across some number (I know, weird right!); these numbers are codes for food additives. Some pesky manufacturers also try to disguise sugar in different name like evaporated cane juice, high-fructose corn syrup, molasses, cane juice crystals (ingenious!) and disaccharides.


The takeaway box:

So there you have it! A simple but informative guide on reading food labels, so please be a bit more careful the next time you pick a packed food and feel free to use this guide to make a healthier choice as the supermarket is full of options and choices. Now you must be thinking that packed foods are bad but they are now a part of our lives as we all consume them at some point and that’s totally OK as they are convenient and easy to carry around especially for people who’re often on the move or crunched for time; but if packed or processed foods make up most or all of your daily diet then it can be an unhealthy habit as you’re missing out on various essential nutrients like vitamins, minerals and fiber while eating too much additives, sugar, refined grains and unhealthy fats. Hence, keeping a good balance of whole foods along with packed ones is the key to enjoy them without the health risks. Learn more about food additives here.


References and further reading:


Bjarnadottir, A., 2019. How To Read Food Labels Without Being Tricked. [online] Healthline. Available at: <https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/how-to-read-food-labels#misleading-claims> [Accessed 26 July 2020].


Ellis, E., 2019. The Basics Of The Nutrition Facts Label. [online] Eatright.org. Available at: <https://www.eatright.org/food/nutrition/nutrition-facts-and-food-labels/the-basics-of-the-nutrition-facts-label> [Accessed 26 July 2020].


U.S. Food and Drug Administration. 2020. How To Understand And Use The Nutrition Facts Label. [online] Available at: <https://www.fda.gov/food/new-nutrition-facts-label/how-understand-and-use-nutrition-facts-label> [Accessed 26 July 2020].