Nutrition Curator
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In an ideal world, we would all be eating whole foods and cooking everything from scratch. But the reality is, we lead busy lives where convenience matters. And well, packaged foods are convenient.

However, finding packaged foods that are good for us is hard. Food labels can be deceiving, causing us to believe things are healthier than they are. As a dietitian, it is my job to educate people so they can properly vet their packaged foods choices. In today’s post, I am highlighting some things to look for when reading a food label.

Here are a few things you’ll want to watch out for.

“Natural” ingredients.

One of the biggest tricks to creating a health halo around food is using the word “natural.” Whereas most things on food labels are policed and defined by the FDA, the word “natural” is not. Because of this, when it is used, it is essentially meaningless. Unfortunately, most people don’t know this, so when they see “natural” on a food label, they automatically assume the food is healthy and non-processed. However, in actuality, it does not mean that at all. For example when you see “natural flavors” on an ingredient list, those flavors have most likely been created in a lab. And if we really ask ourselves what they taste like, they probably don’t taste very natural at all.

Sugar in the ingredient list.

Ingredients on the ingredient list are listed in descending order, so the more there is of an ingredient, the higher up on the list it will be. To avoid foods high in sugar, as a rule of thumb I tell clients that sugar should not be one of the top three ingredients. However, this is not foolproof. Companies have started using multiple sources of sugar (ex: cane sugar, dextrose, high fructose corn syrup, brown rice syrup, honey, etc.), which allows them to list all of them separately. Because of this, they appear further down on the ingredient list, making it less obvious that there is more added sugar than you likely want.

“Low-fat” claims.

Back in the 90’s when low-fat diets were all the rage, “low-fat” and “reduced fat” products were everywhere. However, as research has shown, low-fat products are not necessarily healthier than their fuller-fat alternatives. Take low-fat yogurt as an example. When fat is removed, it is often replaced with added sugar and fillers. Manufacturers do this to make sure that the yogurt still tastes good and has that creamy texture. But with all the newly introduced sugar and additives, the low fat yogurt is suddenly no longer the better option. So if you are ever enticed by a food label that claims to be low in fat, check the ingredients to make sure that nothing undesirable was added in its stead.

Unrealistically small portion sizes.

Let’s be honest, no one wants to look at the Nutrition Facts Label of their snack and see 400 calories or 30 grams of fat or sugar. And guess what? Food companies know this. Because of that, they shrink their serving sizes, which shrinks every other number on the Nutrition Facts Label. Sometimes, however, the serving size becomes so unrealistically small, it doesn’t accurately reflect the amount that most people are actually eating. So, the next time you look at a Nutrition Facts Label, think about what that serving size means to you. If it seems reasonable, then great. If not, think about how much you would normally eat and multiply the numbers accordingly. For example, if the serving size is ¼ cup, but you are planning to eat ½ cup, then you’ll want to double the rest of the numbers on the Nutrition Facts Label (ex: fat, carb, fiber, etc.). Then, you can make an educated decision.

Now that we’ve discussed the red flags, what is it that we want to see on our food labels?

Quantifiable portion sizes.

As I just mentioned, when looking at a Nutrition Facts Label, it is important to actually understand what the serving size means. Sometimes, it isn’t always clear. For example, if you are looking at a bag of chips, isn’t it easier to conceive of what 11 chips are versus a 2 oz serving? Or if you are looking at a condiment, isn’t it easier to picture a tablespoon serving versus a 1 oz serving? Being able to quantify a serving size is important because it helps us understand how much we eat in relation to that serving size.

Nutrient Density.

You will rarely ever hear me talk about calories. This is because I don’t count them and I never want my clients to count them . However, you will often hear me talk about the quality of a calorie, also known as nutrient density. Nutrient density is essentially how much value a calorie has. For example, calories coming from a Coca Cola are essentially worthless. They are what we call “empty calories.” However, calories coming from a 3-bean chili are full of nutrients like fiber, protein, and healthy fat. They are what we call “nutrient dense calories” and they add a lot of value to the diet. When looking at a food label, we want the calories on the Nutrition Facts Label to be valuable. So instead of concentrating on the number of calories, look down to see where those calories are coming from. You’ll want to see higher numbers next to things like unsaturated fat, fiber, and protein; and lower numbers next to saturated fat and sugar.

Clean, Concise Ingredient Lists

Above we spoke about how tricky ingredient lists can be, which is why I advocate for shorter, concise ingredient lists. While some healthy foods have many ingredients, the shorter the list, the more likely you are to pinpoint if there are any unwanted ingredients. We should also be able to understand and recognize 99%, if not 100% of the words. Though there are exceptions, long words that the layman does not understand are likely chemical additives that are used to unnaturally enhance flavor, texture, and shelf-life.