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How to Read Labels

by Thais Harris, NC
Nutrition Education Program Manager, Ceres Community Project


Our health depends on a diet primarily composed of whole foods. Vegetables, fruits, legumes, nuts, seeds and whole grains provide healthy fats, minerals, vitamins, carbohydrates, fiber, protein, and the protective phytochemicals – think antioxidants – which help our body maintain balance and allow us to thrive.

Making food from scratch ensures that we know exactly what is going into our food, and therefore, into our bodies. With that said, most of us - even those of us who are able to prioritize whole foods - find ourselves buying prepared and packaged goods at the store, which is not necessarily a bad thing.

Canned goods, crackers, tortillas, snacks (seaweed, granola, trail mix), sauces, and nut butters are among some of the items I often purchase in the “processed” food category. These can still be considered healthy foods if the ingredients are whole and minimally processed, and there is only one way of knowing whether this is the case: by reading their labels.

Reading labels can be confusing and time-consuming, so let’s take a look at key information to look for on a label, so we can hopefully avoid confusion and save some time (though I must say that I have to allow more time for shopping now than I did when I wasn’t an avid label reader!).

Karyn Duggan, CNC, nutrition consultant at One Medical Group, says “that reading labels is truly a form of dietary self-defense.” I couldn’t agree more. We may not have a choice when it comes to consuming prepared/packaged foods, but we do have a choice about what kinds of prepared foods we are willing to eat, and thankfully the marketplace is now full of more whole and clean options.


1. The most important piece of information on a label is the ingredient list.

This list will tell us if the foods are whole (foods you recognize, like oats, apples, etc.) or synthetic, which we will want to avoid (ingredients you can’t pronounce like Tetrasodium pyrophosphate).

Here are some things to keep in mind:

• The shorter the ingredients list, the better

• Avoid products that contain any partially or fully hydrogenated oils, as these contain large quantities of trans fats and other altered fat substances (even if the package says it is trans-fat free, it can contain up to 0.5 grams of trans fat per serving)

• Also avoid sugars, especially processed sugars such as












beet sugar

corn sugar

corn sweeterner

high fructose conr syrup

invert sugar





You might even find more than one listed. These are all just variations on high-calorie, low-nutrient, added sugar. Beware of sugar alcohols: sorbitol, mannitol, and maltitol, which might carry the claim “0 grams sugar” on the label. These sugars are not completely absorbed by the body, which will won’t impact our blood sugar as much, but they have other side effects such as intestinal discomfort, bloating and gas

• Avoid additives (more details below)

2. Then you can look at the Nutrition Facts label

Looking at the Nutrition Facts allows you to quickly spot dietary disasters such as excessive sodium (no more than 2000 mg a day) and sugar (no more than 25 g a day for added sugars). Here you will want to pay attention to the serving size, which is usually different than the package size. Get familiar with the number of calories per serving, and see how it fits into your daily caloric allowance (average 2,000 calories/day).

3. Beware of claims made on the packaging

According to WebMD,

• a food that trumpets itself as containing whole grains may have more sugar and/or processed grains than whole grains.

• a food that promises to be trans fat free may in fact contain up to 0.5 grams of partially hydrogenated oils, a source of trans fats, in the ingredient list.


4. Know which claims mean something

“Natural” and “healthy” in many fresh and packaged foods are terms used for marketing purposes and mean nothing as they are not regulated. When “all natural” is used in meat, chicken or eggs (and ONLY in these foods) it simply means that it has been verified that no artificial ingredients have been added (but it says nothing about the quality of the meat, chicken or eggs.)


Click to enlarge.


The Food industry creates new chemicals to add to our foods in order to:

• Mimic natural flavors and smell

• Mimic natural colors

• Make them look more natural

• Add synthetic nutrients back to foods that have been stripped by various processing methods

• Improve shelf life and storage time

• Make food convenient and easy to prepare

• Keep customers coming back for more

These are commonly referred to as additives, and are best avoided. Many of the additives approved for use in the US are banned in other countries, and in fact, – the average American consumes 15 pounds of additives per year if eating the SAD (Standard American Diet).

Food additives are classified by groups according to how they are used in processing:

1. Sweeteners are added as flavor enhancers

2. Flavorings are the largest group with more than 2,000 different additives (including 500 which are natural). They are used to attain a certain taste to meet consumers’ expectations

3. Coloring agents

4. Preservatives, which prevent physical and chemical changes in foods

5. Acids, alkalis, buffers, and neutralizers adjust pH balance, make dough rise andenhance flavor

6. Bleaching and maturing agents are used in flour products and cheeses

7. Moisture control agents prevent food from drying out or becoming too moist

8. Activity control agents slow or accelerate ripening of foods

9. Emulsifiers help blend oils with water-soluble liquids to maintain consistency

10. Texturizers are stabilizers and processing aids that give body and texture to the food

11. Processing aids and clarifying agents help to clear bacteria and debris from food

12. Nutritional supplements include natural and synthetic vitamins and minerals to enrich foods


When looking at labels, make sure to identify whether the product contains additives, and see if you can find alternatives.

Additives such as artificial flavors and colors have been associated with hyperactivity, for example, and are often found in cereals, candies, sodas, and snack foods, especially those marketed to children. They will be noted on the ingredients list by their color name, such as Yellow 5, Yellow 6, Red 40, Red 3, Blue 1, Blue 2, Green 3, and Orange B (WebMD).

nutrition label

Other considerations:

Making sense of the nutrition facts portion of the label:

Calories: amount of energy to raise 1 gram of water by 1 degree Celsius. (What’s appropriate: 350-600 calories for a meal; 100-200 calories for a small snack)

Fats: Foods should have 10 grams of fat or less per meal

Sodium: aim for no more than 2,400 milligrams per day

Sugar: no more than 25 grams—a little more than 6 teaspoons—of added sugar per day

Fiber: at least 25 grams daily

How your food is packaged and cooked/heated also has an impact on your health. Canned goods when not specified as BPA-free, will contain a BPA lining, which has been shown to negatively affect our endocrine system (hormones). There are many brands today that offer BPA-free lining, and this information will be on your – guess what? – label!

Some other plastic packages can also leach plastic compounds into your food, a good example is plastic bottled water. Avoid it if you can.

Teflon has been banned from food packaging, which is a big victory for healthy eating; however, many people still use Teflon pans to heat up and cook food, so you might want to consider replacing pots and pans with Teflon for stainless steel ones.

The best way to avoid additives, processed sugars, high sodium, unhealthy fats, plastic and other toxic compounds is by eating a whole foods-based diet, cooking from scratch with simple and fresh ingredients, and paying attention to labels. It takes more time and effort, but the investment is well worth it!