4 easy steps to read a food label

How are you doing on your veggie challenge?

Yesterday I chopped up some leftover asparagus from dinner the night before and added them to my egg white scramble for a yummy breakfast, made a salad out of broccoli slaw, leftover chicken and greek yogurt dressing for lunch, and had a side of broccoli, carrots, red and yellow peppers for dinner.

It’s time to continue with our series on calories and weight.  Today we will be looking at food labels.  If you missed part one of the series, check out the post here.

There has been a lot of talk about making food labels more friendly lately, and some of that talk seems to be coming to a store near you, which is great!  For the longest time marketers were using too many tricks to get you to buy their product, including making the food label difficult and misleading.  But there’s a few easy steps to read a food label that will not add a lot of time to your next grocery store trip.

Step number 1:

Ignore all the advertising on the front of the box.  “Organic.” “Whole Grains” “No Added Sugar”.  These are just marketing tools, and while there is some governing into what words can be used, it’s still very confusing and tricky.

Just as an example.  If a product says “Organic” on it, all that means is that one of the ingredients used to make the product is organic.  All other ingredients could have been bathed in pesticides daily, but as long as one ingredient wasn’t, then it can be advertised as organic.  Crazy, right?  (If shopping organic, look for 100% Organic.  These are truly all organic.)

Ignore all those slogans and phrases on the front of the package and turn it around to the food label.  That’s where the real information is.

Step number 2: Look at the ingredient list.

  • If the ingredient list is a mile long, put the product back on the shelf.  You want the least amount of ingredients as possible in the product.  My rule of thumb is no more than 6 ingredients.
  • If the ingredient list contains a lot of long, chemical-sounding words, put the product back.  Usually these long crazy words are preservatives.  And the healthier choice is to avoid these in your daily diet.  Who wants to eat a bunch of chemicals??
  • If the ingredient list contains the words “hydrogenated” or “partially hydrogenated”, put it back.  These words mean the product has trans fat.  (Even if the food label says 0 grams of Trans fat!  The manufacturers are allowed to round down, so if it has 0.47 grams of trans fat per serving, they can say 0 on the food label.)
  • Check for words that end is “ose” like glucose, fructose, sucrose and dextrose.  These all mean sugar was added, and you want to avoid any added sugar in your diet.
  • Look for the word “whole”.  This is a good word – “whole grain, whole wheat” are great ingredients to be looking for on the ingredient list.


Step number 3: Look at the serving size and calorie count.

Serving size is very important!  The serving size is the amount of food from that package that equals the nutrition facts listed on the label.  Some serving sizes are small, such as 7 chips or 1/4 cup.  Some are larger, 1/2 package or 1 cup.  So you may be eating more, less, or the same amount as the serving size.

If you eat 1/2 cup of a package whose serving size is 1/4 cup, make sure you are not fooled!  You are consuming twice the amount of calories that is listed on the food label.

But, if you eat 1/8 cup of an item that’s serving size is 1/4 cup, you are consuming half the amount of calories consumed.

Make sure you know how much you normally consume for a serving, and compare that to the serving size.  Then, you can look at the calorie count in the food item with realistic eyes and decide if it’s the best choice for you.

Step number 4: Check the % Daily Value numbers on the side of the food label.

All of the items listed under the calorie count are important, but who has time to think about “is 7g of fiber too much or too little?”, “what does 2g saturated fat mean?”, “is 22g of carbs high or low?”.  That’s a lot of information to process when you are trying to get in and out of the grocery store as fast as possible!

An easy way to do that, check the % Daily Values – a very underused tool!

20% or higher is considered high for a nutrient, while 5% or less is considered low for a nutrient.

Your goal is to get as close to the low zone (5% or less) for all the “bad” nutrients listed on the food label:

  • Total Fat
  • Saturated Fat
  • Trans Fat
  • Cholesterol
  • Sodium

And you want at least one (preferably more) of the good nutrients to be in the high range (20% or higher):

  • Dietary Fiber
  • Vitamin A
  • Vitamin C
  • Calcium
  • Iron
  • Any other vitamin or mineral listed

So with a quick glance down the right side of the food label, you have figured out if this food is full of bad stuff, good stuff, or somewhere in between (which is ok in moderation).

4 easy steps to a healthy food choice!  Not bad.

Need some practice?  Take some time today to look at a few of your favorite food purchases in your pantry and fridge.  Are these the right choices or should you look for a healthier option the next time you hit the store?

Vegetable Recipes

Good for an appetizer, snack or a meal: Broccoli Parmesan Fritters

A great summertime dinner packed full of vegetables: Pasta Primavera with Arugula Pesto

Need a quick, healthy lunch with some vegetable appeal: Grilled Cumin-Lime Zucchini Quesadilla

For my veggie breakfast fans: Kale Pesto Breakfast Pasta (this is great any time of day!)


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