What to Look for When Reading Food Labels

Shandra Martinez

| 4 min read

Who knew that grocery shopping for healthy foods would need a little detective work? These days, the huge array of flashy products proclaiming themselves to be low-calorie, low-fat, low-carb and just generally better than the box next to them has seemingly reached an all-time high. Shoppers are inundated with all kinds of these words on product packaging. But if your goal is to eat better, it really pays to be a label reader. And that’s where a little sleuthing can help you put healthier items in your cart.

Being a label detective

Once you learn how to read a label, you’ll be able to cut through the buzzwords and pick out the important information right away. It just takes a little practice. The next time you pick up an item and scan the label, here are some things to look for:
  • Ingredient list
  • Serving size
  • Servings per container
  • Amount of calories, saturated fat, sodium, sugar
The serving size, in particular, is important - especially if you are trying to figure out how many calories are in an entire package.
“I feel bamboozled because I’ve been to a vending machine, and then you get a serving of maybe it’s chips or crackers or something like that, and obviously you’re going to eat the whole bag. It’s a very small bag with mostly air in it. And then when you go and look at it, sometimes there are two or even three servings in that container. So it’s something to be wary of, especially when you see that, ‘Wow. This cookie is only 30 calories.’ Well, it’s because it’s a fourth of a cookie,” said Shanthi Appelö, a registered dietician with Blue Cross Blue Shield.

Look at the first 3 ingredients

When you’re reading the ingredients list on any label, focus on the first three ingredients. Those are the most plentiful ingredients by weight. Make sure they make sense for the type of product, Appelö said.
For example, if you’re purchasing a chicken dinner, make sure chicken is one of the first ingredients. The same goes for buying a vinaigrette salad dressing: oil and vinegar should be among the first ingredients listed.

Nutritional red flags and green lights

When you’re reading the nutrition part of a product’s label, you want to keep an eye out for added sugars, sodium, and their percentage per serving, as based on the percentage of the daily value. That daily value figure is based on a 2,000-calorie diet, which not everyone follows but it serves as a good rule of thumb. “So, if it’s 5% or less, that’s a good guideline that I like to use for something like saturated fat or cholesterol or sodium,” she said. A high value, like 20% of the recommended daily value, can be a good sign if that is listed for dietary fiber, or a good nutrient like iron.

Misleading buzzwords on labels

Here are some other words that are often used to advertise products, but might not mean what you think they do.
Zero-calorie foods: Some of these products might contain sugar alcohols. These are not technically an artificial sweetener. They are carbs that don’t have four calories per gram, so their calorie count does not have to be listed. This way, manufacturers can lower the serving size and claim it to be a calorie-free food.
Multi-grain: This just means there is more than one kind of grain on the ingredient list. It’s not necessarily a healthier choice.
Low-calorie: Spray oil is a good example of this. There are 120 calories in one tablespoon of oil. So why are spray oils listed as zero to just a few calories a serving? Because on the label, each spray/serving size is listed as just a fraction of a second - and no one sprays that fast - or that little - when using them.
All-natural: This does not necessarily mean healthy. These foods can still have a lot of sugar, fat and calories per serving.
Want to learn more about what to look for when reading food labels? Listen to this episode of “A Healthier Michigan Podcast” featuring a conversation with Shanthi Appelö, a registered dietitian for Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan, to hear more tips for on grocery shopping for healthy foods.
Photo credit: Getty Images
MI Blues Perspectives is sponsored by Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan, a nonprofit, independent licensee of the Blue Cross Blue Shield Association