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How Nutritionists Read a Food Label


How Nutritionists Read a Food Label

Did you catch the recent news about a study that showed that people who read food labels have a lower body mass index (a measure used to define a person’s height to weight ratio)?  We’re not surprised.  Not only does the label on your food paint a picture of the food’s healthy benefits (or warn you that it has none), it also puts you in a more empowered frame of mind to make healthful food choices.  We read labels like it’s our job…well, it sort of is… and wanted to share our label-reading strategy with all of you.

Step 1: Ingredients: Before you look at anything else, scope out the ingredients.  While certain terms on labels can be tricky (16-grain bread might not be whole grain and “natural” means very little), the ingredients rarely lie.  Look at the number of ingredients — are there so many it makes your head spin?  Might be better to pass on the product, as lots of ingredients usually indicate a more processed food (and more additives).  Ingredients seem like something from a chemistry book?  Again, maybe better to pass, as this could indicate a food with potentially negative additives.  If you’re looking for a whole grain product, make sure the word “whole” is somewhere in the first ingredient.  And steer clear of anything with partially hydrogenated oil in the ingredients list (this is the major source of trans fat).  If you see sugar (or honey, syrup, high fructose corn syrup, agave, brown rice syrup, or anything ending is “ose”) in the beginning of the ingredient list, chances are, the product has quite a bit of added sugar.

Step 2: Type of food: Some foods might be totally lacking in one or two categories on the food label, while others might be super-charged with certain nutrients.  Keep in mind the type of food/which food category and what nutrients it’s naturally highest in.  For instance, canned salmon is a high-protein food, so we don’t expect it to deliver fiber (or have whole grains in the ingredients list).  We would expect whole grain bread to have whole grains in its ingredients, but we wouldn’t expect it to display a whole lot of protein on its label.  Also think about how this food will fit into your meals and snacks and what it might be paired with in order to assess if it can work with your calorie/nutrition goals.

Step 3: # of servings: Before gazing at the Nutrition Facts panel’s many categories, check on the very top first — the number of servings.  That is the number of servings that the company divided the food into before running the nutrition analysis — so the stats you see for calories, fat, sodium, sugar, etc. are all for one serving of the product.  This is especially tricky for bottled drinks (often more than one serving per bottle) and smaller packages of trail mix and chips (if you eat the whole thing in one sitting, multiply each nutrient category by the number of servings).  So, if you have a bottle of iced tea with 50 calories per serving, and the serving size is half the bottle, the entire bottle contains 100 calories.  Or, if you buy a bag of chips with 12 servings, but you only get 4 servings from it, multiply each nutrient on the Nutrition Facts panel by 3.

Step 4: Label stats:  If you’ve checked the ingredients, set some basic expectations for the type of food you’re looking at, and taken note of the number of servings, it’s time to assess the numbers.   Look at the calories, considering your overall daily calorie goals (FYI, we usually recommend 350 for breakfast, 450 for lunch, 500 for dinner, 150 for snacks, and 150 for treats, if you’re looking to lose weight).  Check out the sodium, keeping in mind that your total for the day shouldn’t exceed 2300mg (1500mg for those with high blood pressure or diabetes).  Scope out the fiber, noting that the daily recommendation is 21-38 grams.  Finally note the sugar, and remember that current recs are not to exceed 6 teaspoons (24 grams) and 9 teaspoons (36 grams) of added sugar for women and men respectively.  Refer back to the ingredients to estimate how much of the sugar is natural (from things like milk and fruit) versus added (honey, sugar, etc.)

What’s the first thing you look for on a food label?  What usually catches your eye?




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18 Comments on “How Nutritionists Read a Food Label”

  1. Kelly

    I’ve noticed lately that many bottled drinks have changed their serving size to ‘1 bottle’. Makes it easier to read the label, and I’m sure most people drink the whole bottle as 1 serving anyway.

    1. Willow & Stephanie Post author

      Kelly, you’re right! We love the companies who have started doing this — it’s much more practical for most people (since most of us drink and entire bottle of iced tea, etc.) Some companies also label “per serving” and “per bottle” which offers a nice comparison. We hope the trend to make things less tricky for shoppers is catching on. :)

  2. Christine

    I always look at carbs and fiber to get the net carbs. Something I learned when I was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes.

  3. Breanna Evans

    I usually read the calories and carbs/sugar first, and then the serving size. If the serving size is too small in relation to the package, or it has too much sugar, I don’t get it. Otherwise, I look at the fat content and the types of fat it contains. Good fats are good, but bad fats disqualify it. Then it’s on to the ingredients, to see if I really want to get it. Reading the labels is good, but it has landed me several 2-3 hour trips to the grocery store….

    1. Willow & Stephanie Post author

      Wow, Breanna, sounds like you are a seriously thorough label reader. The good news is, it gets faster the more you do it — 2-3 hour supermarket trips are intense! It’s really great that you take the time to thoroughly scope out the details of the label. To make the process faster, you can move the deal breakers to the top of your checklist. For example, if you’re looking at bread and it has to be whole grain, scope out the ingredients to make sure a whole grain is the first ingredient…if not, it’s disqualified right away. We also look at the category of food — for instance, if we’re looking at sorbet, fat wouldn’t be an issue…but if we’re looking at salad dressing, the type of fat used would be a main focus. Keep up the awesome label-reading. Sounds like your fellow shoppers should ask you for advice! Though then you might be there for 5-6 hours ;)

  4. Kimberly Batton Concepcion

    I usually look at carbs & sugar first because my husband is diabetic, then look at fat & fiber also because I do Weight Watchers

    1. Willow & Stephanie Post author

      Kimberly — wow, your husband is lucky to have you paying such careful attention to the foods you buy for the household! Carb counting is really important. We also agree that fiber and fat are super important. We usually rely pretty heavily on the ingredient list to let us know the sources of the fiber and fat (so we can make sure the fiber is coming from fruits, veggies, whole grains, nuts/seeds) and the fat is mostly from mono/polyunstaturated sources.

  5. Cat

    My major problem with healthy eating is not having a large enough volume of food. So one of the most important parts of the label for me is the serving size. If the serving size is small, I generally put it back unless it happens to be really low in calories/carbs and I could easily have more than one serving.

    1. Willow & Stephanie Post author

      Serving size is SO important — especially since all of the nutrition info is based on that sized serving. Bottled drinks (like iced teas) are especially tricky or things like packets of trail mix (where it seems like it would be one serving but is actually 3 or 4!)

  6. Bobbiejo Winfrey

    The first things I look at are usually the fats (what kinds and how much) and the fiber amount if there is any. I have gastroparesis, or a slowing of gastric emptying, and these two substances are hard on the stomach to process. I have become much more aware of food labels since I first had serious digestive problems so that I can try to keep myself as healthy and my digestive system as happy as possible.

    1. Willow & Stephanie Post author

      Great idea to check out the type of fats (not just how much). Also fantastic that you’re carefully reading labels. Our clients who have gastroparesis usually find that eating smaller meals more often helps a lot and they’re able to include whole grains, fruits, veggies, and fats as long as they keep the serving sizes small (and eat more often). And sticking with soft/pureed foods on days they aren’t feeling well also helps. =)

    1. Willow & Stephanie Post author

      Sugar is really important (in combination with ingredients — to see where that sugar is coming from). For every 4g of sugar on the label, there’s a tsp of sugar in the product. Putting added sugar into tsp. equivalents helps us visualize the actual amount better and also allows us to ask ourselves if we would ever add that much to a plain version of the product. If the answer is no, then we skip it, buy the plain version and sprinkle a little sugar on ourselves (or better yet, add fruit and cinnamon for flavor!)

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