I’m the crazy lady in the grocery store hunched over 3 boxes of crackers scrutinizing the labels debating whether I should favor fewer ingredients over an extra gram of fiber. Nutrition fact labels are not the most user-friendly. And what’s the deal with the front of food boxes? Organic, natural, low carb, free-range, GMO-free, sugar-free, heart healthy. What’s important here? It’s a full-time job to demystify all of that stuff, and I have a hunch it’s fun only for me. Save yourself some headache. All you need to save time and select foods that are better for you is just 5 areas of the nutrition facts label.
Go here first. Knowing what’s in your food is the easiest and most important step and the one that will give you the most information. If this is the only thing you do, GREAT. Knowledge is power, so being able to decipher this section is going to take you far. Looking for a truly whole wheat bread or want to avoid red dye 40? The ingredients list is the one area that tells you what’s really going on. What you need to know:
- Foods are listed in order of predominance. The ingredients used in the greatest amount are at the front of the list and the ones used in smaller amounts are at the end. I’m skeptical if white flour is the first ingredient in “whole wheat” bread or when sugar leads the list on a cereal box.
With the logistics down, I’ve borrowed two suggestions from Michael Pollan that usually steer you in the right direction:
- Look for ingredients you can pronounce. And ones you might actually cook with at home.
- Select foods with five(ish) ingredients or fewer.
Keeping this in mind, you can ignore all of those claims the front of the container. All the information you need to know is right here.
Simple, but also tricky. The list of calories, grams/milligrams of fat, sodium carbohydrate, protein, and cholesterol refer to the amount in a specific portion size, which is not necessarily the whole box. Look at the top part of the label for serving size and servings per package.
Speaking of fat, sodium, carbohydrate, protein, and cholesterol - please don’t look at the percent daily value. Grams and milligrams is where it’s at! Don’t worry about the percent and I promise you’ll be fine.
Sugar is in EVERYTHING these days and in turn we’re eating way too much of it. To check your intake of sneaky added sugar, first look at the ingredients. Then head to the grams of sugar on the nutrition facts label. I don’t have a specific number that triggers a red flag. Aim for as little as possible. Some things to note:
- Sugar is great in sweets (because that’s the point!), but I really try to avoid it in everyday meal times food.
- You don’t want this guy to be anywhere near the front of your list list unless you’re buying sweets or, well, a bag of sugar. Food companies picked up on this, and are now using “sugar in disguise”. Beware of rice syrup, dextrose, maltodextrin, barley malt, or any weird but sweet sounding ingredient. A good rule of thumb is to be wary of anything you can’t pronounce or don’t recognize.
- Foods that shouldn’t have added sugar (but often do) include: yogurt, sauce, dressing, bread/wraps, frozen/prepared meals, crackers, chips, salsa, cereal, and nut butters.
- I find comparing the numbers in different products and across brands the best way to make an informed choice.
- Note that the new nutrition facts label distinguishes between sugar and ADDED sugar. Sugar is natural in a lot of foods - dairy, grains, fruits. It’s really added sugar you want to limit.
Fiber has a long list of benefits - it helps to regulate blood sugar, can lower cholesterol, keeps you full, is associated with healthy weight, and makes for a happy GI system. Most Americans do not consume the recommended 25-30 grams of fiber a day. I find it helpful to compare fiber content on packaged foods like breads, crackers, and snack bars. It’s an extra piece of information about how processed the food is and what benefits it might be providing.
Front of the box
This prime marketing real estate is home to a lot of trendy, snazzy claims. I wouldn’t trust most of them! You will gain a lot more information by checking the 4 points above. When you’re looking at food packaging, remember:
- A lot of what you see here is unregulated. “Natural,” for example, doesn’t mean anything.
- If a product is organic it will have a USDA seal.
- Gluten-free is legit. But it doesn’t mean a product is nutritious.
- Anything mentioning whole grains/whole wheat is super questionable, so look at the ingredients to find out the real deal
It’s a lot. Get starting with your label sleuthing and let me know if you have any questions below!