Reading food labels can be tricky.
Consumers are more health-conscious than ever, so some food manufacturers use misleading tricks to convince people to buy highly processed and unhealthy products.
Food labeling regulations are complex, making it harder for consumers to understand them.
This article explains how to read food labels so that you can differentiate between mislabeled junk and truly healthy foods.
Share on PinteresFood labels give you information about the calories, number of servings, and nutrient content of packaged foods. Reading the labels can help you make healthy choices when you shop.
Food labels tell you the nutrition facts about the foods you buy. Use the food labels to help you choose healthier foods.
What to Look for
Always check the serving size first. All the information on the label is based on the serving size. Many packages contain more than 1 serving.
For example, the serving size for spaghetti is most often 2 ounces (56 grams) uncooked, or 1 cup (0.24 liters) cooked. If you eat 2 cups (0.48 liters) at a meal, you are eating 2 servings. That is 2 times the amount of the calories, fats, and other items listed on the label.
Calorie information tells you the number of calories in 1 serving. Adjust the number of calories if you eat smaller or larger portions. This number helps determine how foods affect your weight.
The total carbs (carbohydrates) are listed in bold letters to stand out and are measured in grams (g). Sugar, starch, and dietary fiber make up the total carbs on the label. Sugar is listed separately. All of these carbs except fiber can raise your blood sugar.
If you have diabetes and count carbs, you can subtract the number of grams of dietary fiber from the total carb number.
Dietary fiber is listed just below total carbs. Buy foods with at least 3 to 4 grams of fiber per serving. Whole-grain breads, fruits and vegetables, and beans and legumes are high in fiber.
Check the total fat in 1 serving. Pay special attention to the amount of saturated fat in 1 serving.
Choose foods that are low in saturated fat. For example, drink skim or 1% milk instead of 2% or whole milk. Skim milk has only a trace of saturated fat. Whole milk has 5 grams of this fat per serving.
Fish is much lower in saturated fat than beef. Three ounces (84 grams) of fish has less than 1 gram of this fat. Three ounces (84 grams) of hamburger has more than 5 grams.
If a food has less than 0.5 grams of saturated fat in the serving size on the label, the food maker can say it contains no saturated fat. Remember this if you eat more than 1 serving.
You should also pay attention to trans fats on any food label. These fats raise "bad" cholesterol and lower your "good" cholesterol.
These fats are mostly found in snack foods and desserts. Many fast food restaurants use trans fats for frying.
If a food has these fats, the amount will be listed on the label under total fat. They are measured in grams. Look for foods that have no trans fats or are low in them (1 gram or less).
Sodium is the main ingredient of salt. This number is important for people who are trying to get less salt in their diet. If a label says that a food has 100 mg of sodium, this means it has about 250 mg of salt. You should eat no more than 2,300 mg of sodium per day. Ask your health care provider if you should have even less.
The % daily value is included on the label as a guide.
The percentage for each item on the label is based on eating 2,000 calories a day. Your goals will be different if you eat more or fewer calories a day. A dietitian or your provider can help you set your own nutrition goals.
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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 (1Tursted Source 2Tursted Source 3Tursted Source 4Tursted Source).
Manufacturers are often dishonest in the way they use these labels. They tend to use health claims that are misleading and in some cases downright false.
Examples include many high-sugar 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.
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 grans, 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.
Ingredients are listed by quantity — from highest to lowest. Try looking for products that list whole foods as the first three ingredients and be skeptical of foods with long lists of ingredients.
Nutrition labels state how many calories and nutrients are in a standard amount of the product — often a suggested single serving.
However, these serving sizes are frequently much smaller than what people consume in one sitting.
For example, one serving may be half a can of soda, a quarter of a cookie, half a chocolate bar, or a single biscuit.
In doing so, manufacturers try to deceive consumers into thinking that the food has fewer calories and less sugar.
Many people are unaware of this serving size scheme, assuming that the entire container is a single serving, when in truth it may consist of two, three, or more servings.
If you're interested in knowing the nutritional value of what you're eating, you need to multiply the serving given on the back by the number of servings you consumed.