How to Read Food Labels for Healthy Eating

When was the last time you read a food label? 

You might be thinking about the calories and sodium content you checked on that bag of chips that you almost bought the other day, or the nutrition facts you read on the candy bar you had for dessert today. 

While these are featured on food labels, this isn’t what we’re necessarily talking about. Chances are that you clicked on this article because you know that reading labels is important, but you don’t know what to look out for other than the percentages of bad stuff like sodium and sugar. 

Reading the nutrition facts label may be a little confusing at first, but once you get the hang of it, you’ll know what to look out for and what to avoid. 

What is a food label?

Open your pantry and pull out a random food item. See that little white label on the back? That’s your nutrition facts label. Somewhere on that package should also be a list of ingredients, recommended serving size, trans fats, saturated fats, and a list of nutrients per serving. 

All packaged foods in the United States are required to have a nutrition facts label. According to the FDA

“The Nutrition Labeling and Education Act (NLEA), which amended the FD&C Act requires most foods to bear nutrition labeling and requires food labels that bear nutrient content claims and certain health messages to comply with specific requirements.”

These labels are also useful in helping people identify if a specific ingredient is going to trigger a severe allergic reaction, like dairy products for people who are lactose intolerant. 

The only food items that typically don’t have a nutritional label are loose produce in bins.

Why reading labels is important

You might be thinking “I don’t have allergies, so why would reading labels be important to me?”

The answer is simple: really good marketing and loopholes. 

Food companies, especially ultra-processed food companies, will display a single healthy ingredient in a particular item and base their whole marketing campaign on that. They do this so that consumers convince themselves that eating this over that is ‘healthy’.

Let’s look at the ingredient list of a popular alternative to gummy bears, a fruit snack brand that takes great marketing to a whole new level.

Exhibit A

The front of the box says “Great source of vitamins A, E, & C!” “No Preservatives!” and “Gluten-free!”. Aside from the actual product label, these are the biggest and brightest items on the box. 

This might seem like a healthy alternative for a busy mom who is trying to avoid feeding her kids too much sugar, but let’s take a look at the ingredient list. 

Ingredients: Fruit puree (grape, peach, orange, strawberry, and raspberry), corn syrup, sugar, modified corn starch, gelatin, concord grape juice from concentrate, citric acid, lactic acid, natural and artificial flavors, ascorbic acid (vitamin C), alpha-tocopherol acetate (vitamin E), vitamin A palmitate, sodium citrate, coconut oil, carnauba wax, annatto (color), turmeric (color), red 40, and blue 1.

So far, everything checks out. There aren’t too many ingredients that are hard to pronounce, and those are at the end of the ingredient list, so they are likely only administered in small amounts. While the dyes are food additives and not particularly good for you, it’s easy to shrug them off because they’re at the end of the ingredient list. 

Now, let’s look at the actual nutrition facts:

Serving size: 25.5 g (one pouch of gummies)

Calories: 80 (in big letters)
Total Fat: 0g 
Saturated Fat: 0g 
Trans Fat: 0g
Sodium: 20 mg
Total Carbohydrates: 19g (8% of your daily value)
Dietary Fiber: 0g
Total Sugars: 11g (18% of the daily value)
Includes 9g Added Sugars
Protein 1g

Vitamin A 230mcg
Vitamin C 23mcg
Vitamin E 3.8 mcg

What is the first thing you see when you look at the nutrition facts? We’ll bet you saw those bold letters, right?

If you were only to pay attention to the bold words, you would miss how much sugar these ‘healthy alternatives’ actually have. In a single serving, you are eating the equivalent of three whole teaspoons of sugar. And that’s what the busy mom from our example would be feeding her kids.

While that’s certainly less than a bag of gummy bears, is it really the healthier alternative?

What to look out for on food labels

If you are shopping in the middle of the grocery store, there are a couple of mental notes you want to remember when plucking colorful boxes boasting healthy ingredients off the shelves. 

Always look at the number of servings featured on the food label, and always read the entire nutrition label to know exactly what you are taking home. Ignore the front of the box because that’s where the marketing will be, and read between the lines of those bold words. 

Does a specific food boast low sugar and low calories? Check the serving size to ensure that the low number isn’t for a teeny tiny serving (because let’s be honest, who actually eats a quarter cup of cereal?). 

Check the micronutrient content so that you aren’t just eating empty calories, and try only to buy foods that have ingredients that you recognize or can pronounce.

Healthy meals, peace of mind

Reading labels is a great step toward healthy eating, but there is one more thing you can do for yourself and your peace of mind. Food sensitivities affect a large portion of the population, but because the symptoms are often mild (acne, occasional stomach pain, etc), you may not associate them with your food.

Getting a food sensitivity test can help you determine if you are sensitive to hydrogenated oils or if you have a gluten intolerance. It can help you determine what is causing your afternoon migraines and help you feel better with an easy-to-follow elimination diet. 

With Immuno Labs, you can have that peace of mind. Ready to take the next step in your wellness journey? Ask your doctor about our Bloodprint Panel, today!

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