How To Read Food Labels and Not Get Tricked
All packaged foods in the U.S. are required to carry a nutritional label, from fruit juice and cookies to soup and nutritional supplements. Food labels can help you make smart choices if you understand what they're saying.
Understanding Serving Size
First, find “serving size” and “servings per container.” All of the numbers on the label (sodium, cholesterol, fat, etc.) are related to the serving size.
A cup of yogurt is usually one serving. Larger products have several servings per container. On a loaf of bread, under serving size it may say “1 slice.” A package of bread can have over 20 servings.
This is where manufacturers sometimes try to trick you. Who eats one slice of bread for breakfast? A package of Oreo cookies lists the serving size as three cookies. When was the last time you ate just three cookies? To get accurate information, you have to multiply the numbers by the servings you realistically eat.
Searching for Low-Fat and Low-Sugar Options
If you’re trying to lose weight, you probably go to the grocery store looking for products that say “fat free” or “low sugar.” Eating healthy is a great idea, and food labels can help you reach your goal. Here’s how to navigate the different terms you see:
- Fat free: Under 0.5 grams of fat
- Low fat: Less than 3 grams of fat
- Reduced fat: At least 25% less fat than the normal product
- Low calorie: Under 40 calories per serving
- Calories free: Under 5 calories a serving
- Sugar free: Under 0.5 grams of sugar per serving
- No sugar added: No sugar or sugar-containing ingredients added during manufacturing
All of these terms are regulated by the FDA. In other words, a company can’t claim something is “fat free” when it’s not. This can guide you to products that fit your lifestyle choices and weight-loss goals.
Avoiding the “Low Sugar” Trap
Unfortunately, just like with serving sizes, some well-known manufacturers (looking at you, Coca-Cola) try to trick you. They use terms that sound similar but aren’t regulated by the FDA, such as “low sugar” or “lightly sweetened.” Be carefully when you see “low sugar” on a label. Some fruit teas with this on the label can have FIVE TEASPOONS of sugar per serving. That doesn’t sound lightly sweetened to us.
To get the most benefit from food labels, check the sections for calories, fat, sodium, sugar and carbohydrates. If you have diabetes, you’ll want to minimize sugar and carbohydrates. Carbs turn into sugar in your body. People with heart issues should try to minimize the amount of salt (sodium), cholesterol, and unhealthy fats in their diet.
Not all fat is bad for you. Unsaturated fats, such as the ones in olive oil, are good for your heart. Coconut oil is high in good fats, too, and it can help boost your metabolism. Of course, you still need to limit the amount of total calories you eat if you want to lose weight.
Finding the Best Ingredients
One of the most important areas of a food label is the “ingredients” section. Natural ingredients give you essential nutrients, while processed ingredients often add empty calories. This applies to nutritional supplements, too. Don’t just look at the claims on the front of the bottle. Check the back to look for a significant amount of real superfoods.