How to Read a Label: The 5 Most Important Things to Look For

At this point, you likely know that the best way to determine whether or not a food is nutritionally sound is to read the label. But what exactly are you supposed to look for to determine whether the product is nutritious?

This relatively straightforward notion but can actually prove to be quite confusing if you don’t know what you are looking for. A recent study concluded that while those who read labels eat about the same amount of food as non-label readers, the label-readers had a greater selection of quality foods such as vegetables, beans and fruits as well as a lower intake of fried foods with added sugar—aka better quality calories.

The nutrition facts label is due for some updates which will hopefully be required for all companies soon. For now, there are companies that have chosen to update their label to the new version. Due to recent changes in nutrition labeling, it’s helpful to remain up-to-date with your knowledge on the nutrition facts label. Staying relevant on the topic will support your ability to make choices that will create health. And these are the five most important things that you can do to stay informed and determine healthy or unhealthy:

1.) Don’t Start with the Label: Go to Ingredient List

The first thing that individuals usually jump to upon reading a nutrition label is the number of calories per serving, this is problematic in that it teaches you to view food as a number rather than a tool for creating health. The first, and perhaps most important tip for reading food labels is to bypass the numbers and go straight to the ingredient list. The first listed ingredient can be very telling as it is the most abundant in weight, if some form of sugar is listed as the second or third ingredient, it is probably not the best option. It is important to remain cautious of ingredients that a.) you have never heard of or b.) you cannot pronounce. Think to yourself, is this something I could find in my pantry at home or was it likely synthesized in a lab? When examining the ingredient list think less is more, the fewer the ingredients the less artificial and processed additives.

2.) Look for Fiber and 100% Whole Grain

Whether you eat grains or live a grain-free lifestyle, the fiber content is an important number to focus on. Fiber is an essential nutrient for feeding a healthy gut, lowering blood sugar levels and increasing levels of satiety. When comparing products, identify which has a higher fiber content because it’s a good sign that the food product was derived from something that is based on nuts, seeds, fruits, vegetables, beans or 100% whole grains. If you choose to eat grains, be sure that they are 100% whole. Upon examining the ingredient list, look for the word “whole” to be listed before all grains like whole grain brown rice, whole grain oats, whole grain amaranth, etc. Whole grain claims can be misleading, as brands will often market themselves as whole grain when they only contain 51% whole grains and the rest are then refined. Choosing whole grains foods has a lower impact on the glycemic index as a result of the presence of fat and fiber. I typically recommend aiming for about 40 grams of fiber per day for a general healthy person and an absolute minimum of 25 grams per day.

3. Sugar – Added vs. Naturally Occurring

One of the most exciting amendments to nutrition labels has been distinguishing “added sugars” from those sugars that are naturally occurring. Several professional organizations –the American Heart Association, World Health Organization, the Institute of Medicine, etc. – are finally on board with advising individuals to reduce their intake of added sugar. The new label will indicate total sugar as well as added sugar. The FDA defines added sugar as “sugars that are either added during the processing of foods, or are packaged as such, and include sugars, sugars from syrups and honey, and sugars from concentrated fruit or vegetable juices that are in excess of what would be expected from the same volume of 100 percent fruit or vegetable juice of the same type”. Conversely, naturally occurring sugars are just that, those that are naturally part of the food product. For example, it is impossible to find a tomato sauce with 0 grams of sugar listed in the ‘total sugar’ line of the label since tomatoes naturally contain sugars; as a consumer you want to avoid a tomato sauce that has added cane sugar in the ingredient list. I generally recommend that individuals aim for no more than 1 tbsp of added sugar per day in the form of raw honey or pure maple syrup.

4. Protein

Ensuring adequate protein consumption is an essential part of a healthy diet. Incorporating protein is fairly simple if you regularly consume whole foods like organic poultry, grass-fed meat, wild caught fish, seeds, nuts and beans/lentils. However it is still important to know how to navigate a label for protein, especially in the case of vegetarians or those that are dairy free. Fortunately, many food companies are trending towards plant-based options that have added protein but not added sugar. When reviewing the nutrition label in dairy free options like almond yogurt or cashew milk, check for ingredients like pea or rice protein. Some milk alternatives have 0 grams of protein but some have up to 10 grams of protein, which is more than the standard 8 grams in cow’s milk.

5. Healthy Fats Will Not Make You Fat

If you don’t already do this, you’ll want to start skipping the low-fat products because healthy fats are an essential part of a healthy diet, fast metabolism, and a functioning brain. It’s important to incorporate healthy, anti-inflammatory fats into your diet so when you are looking at the nutrition facts label, you’ll want to see some form of fat in order to balance your blood sugar levels. The best types of fats are monounsaturated from extra virgin olive oil, avocado oil, and avocados; polyunsaturated fats from nuts and seeds and omega 3s such as wild salmon and sardines, and some plant-based, unrefined saturated fats from coconut oil or grass-fed ghee. Conversely, when reading nutrition labels, it is important to note some major fat red flags. Foods that include trans fat on the label or partially hydrogenated oils in the ingredient list are dangerous for your heart. It’s also important to avoid highly refined vegetable oils such as corn oil, soybean oil, safflower oil, etc. These fats are high in omega 6 fats which interfere with your absorption of anti-inflammatory omega 3 fats. If you see any of these listed in the ingredients or nutrition label, you may want to consider putting the item back on the shelf.

At the end of the day, the best products are those that contain whole food ingredients and are nutritionally dense in healthy fats, proteins, and fiber but low in added sugar.

Brigid Titgemeier, MS, RDN, LD is a functional medicine dietitian nutritionist at the first hospital-based functional medicine center in the country and an adjunct instructor in Cleveland, OH. Brigid is a published author of dozens of articles for U.S. News and World Report, the Huffington Post, Cleveland Clinic Health Essentials, and ivillage. When she’s not working she’s usually in her kitchen experimenting with and photographing new recipes for her blog, She is completely in her element when she is cooking in the kitchen, practicing yoga, listening to her favorite country artists and relaxing with family and friends.

Contributor: Madeline McDonough 

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