How to Read a Food Label

You’ve probably heard that it’s best to stay in the perimeter of the grocery store when you shop because that’s where the “real food” is: fruit, vegetables, meat, dairy, etc., but even “real food” can be processed and packaged.  Making good nutrition a part of your healthy lifestyle is all about choices.

When you’re making good food choices and find yourself looking at processed and packaged food, it makes sense to read the food label. So much great information on that label, but what in the world does it all mean?

Food labels can be so confusing!

Even “healthy” food can be surprisingly unhealthy. We’d like to think that food labels are pretty straightforward, but that’s not the case at all.

Here are my 3 basic guidelines for reading and interpreting food labels.

1. Look at the ingredients.

  • Ingredients are listed in descending order according to how much is in the product, from most to least. That means if sugar is the first ingredient listed, then that product has more sugar than any other ingredient.
Read Ingredients on Food Label
Some ingredients to watch out for as you read the label:
  • Sugar – Look for sugar in all forms, like corn syrup, high-fructose corn syrup, honey, syrup, dextrose, sucrose, or fruit juice concentrate. Keep it to a minimum.

    Sugar photo courtesy of published on
    Look for added sugar on food label.
  • Salt –Look for the words salt, sodium, or soda.
  • Partially Hydrogenated Oil – Oil that’s been processed for a longer shelf life; not a healthy form of fat. Partially hydrogenated oil is commonly found in baked goods and fried foods. Avoid it when you can.
  • Food Additives and Preservatives – Used for lots of reasons, including extending shelf-life, adding color or flavor, and maintaining texture. Many different additives and preservatives, like food coloring, are known to have a negative effect on some people, especially children. As much as possible, choose products with ingredients you can identify and pronounce. If you wonder what it is, look it up.
  • Artificial Sweeteners – Do artificial sweeteners make people fat? The debate continues. Whether they make people fat or not, you may find that reducing artificial sweeteners increases your sensitivity to chemical additives in your food (taste) and reduce cravings for sweet food.
  • Grain Info– Look for whole grain products and keep in mind that the labeling of grains can be confusing.

According to the,

“…we advise manufacturers to use the words “whole grain” in the name of a product only if the product contains more whole grain than refined grain (i.e., 51% or more of the grain is whole grain). Whole grain means that 100% of the original kernel – all of the bran, germ, and endosperm – must be present to qualify as a whole grain.”

Refined grains are stripped of the fiber-rich part of the grain, so it’s important to look at fiber content. The more fiber, the better.

Photo of white flour courtesy of published on
Enriched Grain vs. Whole Grain

2. Serving size

  • Keep portion sizes in mind. Sometimes food manufacturers list very small serving sizes in an effort to keep the calorie count down. Pay attention to serving size when you’re planning your meals and snacks.

3. Check fiber, sugar, and calories.

  • More Fiber – Fiber’s good for digestive health and to help you feel full longer. Studies show that people who eat a high fiber diet tend to be leaner with a lower incidence of certain types of cancer, like colon cancer.
  • Less Sugar – If you’ve already read the label for sugar, you have an idea what you’re dealing with. The less, the better.
  • Calories – Not all calories are created equal. Nuts, for example, are high in calories but are a good source of healthy fat and will help keep you satisfied.

Follow these basic guidelines to help you make informed choices for you and your family.

What do you look for on food labels? Have they helped you make better food choices? Post your comments on below.

2 thoughts on “How to Read a Food Label

  • October 7, 2015 at 1:09 pm

    Ruby … I thoroughly enjoy reading your blogs. Going to the grocery store and reading labels can be quite overwhelming. Thanks for breaking it down for me.

    • October 9, 2015 at 3:04 am

      Glad to help!

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