Reading a food label doesn’t have to be like reading a foreign language. Companies know how to market their products to make them seem healthy and appealing, but if you understand how to read a food label, you can quickly see through those marketing schemes.
Let’s start with the basics. Most people know to look at the calories. Next, take a look at the serving size. A food item may say it’s only 100 calories, but if there 6 servings in a bag and you eat the whole thing, you just ate 600 calories. Big difference.
Checking the carbohydrates is important, especially if you are someone with Diabetes. The total carbohydrate INCLUDES sugars, so this value gives you the total of both simple and complex carbohydrates in an item. This can also help you estimate how quickly a food may affect your blood sugar. If you see a higher amount of “sugars” included in the food label, those are the kind of food items that will raise your blood sugars more rapidly.
Next, take a look at fat. If you see trans-fat on the food label go ahead and put that back. Trans-fats are the worst kind out there. You want to limit the amount of saturated fats you consume as well. A good rule of thumb for snacks when looking at the fat on a food label is to make sure that the calories from fat is around 10% of the total calories. For example, if you have a food item that is 200 calories, the calories from fat should be around 20 calories.
Sodium is important to consider as well. Most Americans on average consume more than 3,300 mg of sodium per day. The CDC recommends reducing sodium intake to 2,300 mg/day. Processed foods tend to be high in sodium, so maintaining a diet full of whole foods will help control your sodium intake as well.
Now take a look at the ingredients. The ingredient listed first is going to be the most abundant ingredient in that food item. The ingredients will be listed in order of quantity down the line. If you see high fructose corn syrup within the first 3 ingredients, put it back (you really should try to avoid it completely). If you evaluated your sugar content correctly, you should have already put it back on the shelf by this point anyway.
Be aware of foods that are labeled low fat,” “fat free,” or “sugar free.” They often have other additives (usually chemical) that have to make up for the missing flavor. Just because it’s fat free doesn’t mean it’s good for you. Whether or not you should use sugar substitutes depends on who you ask. Personally, I don’t like them and I don’t recommend them. Studies have shown that they can actually increase hunger and cravings. I think it’s better to have the real thing, but in a small quantity. We all know that one person that drinks a million diet cokes and eats nothing but fast food…. : / Your need to read food labels should be minimal if you are sticking to whole foods, fruits and vegetables. Most of the food label reading is for processed foods which you don’t really want anyway!
If you want to read more about understanding a food label, here is a more in depth overview.