10 Things to Look for on Food Labels

You might ask, why is it important for me to know how to read food labels?  It says it’s healthy, what else do I need to know? Unfortunately, food companies can mislead the consumer. It’s important for you to know what exactly is in the food you eat. That you can better decide what is the best for you and your health.

#1 The Number Stickers on Fruits and Vegetables

You might not think of the numbered stickers on fruits and vegetables as being a food label, but you can actually get some very important information from them. These stickers have a four- or five-digit number on them that can not only tell the store what it is but it can also tell you how it was grown. Even if the label or the signs at the stores don’t say if it is organic or conventionally grown, the sticker numbers do.  If the number starts with a number “9”, it is organic. Organic foods are grown without the use of chemical pesticides or herbicides. By eating organic foods, you ingest fewer chemicals and can lower your chances of some health conditions and cancers.  If the number starts with a “4”, it is a conventionally or traditionally grown food. Conventionally or traditionally grown foods are when farmers use chemical pesticides and herbicides.  It is the most common way for our food to be grown. If the label starts with a number “8”, it is a GMO or Genetically Modified Organism. GMO’s are foods that have been genetically modified for different reasons. They may have been modified to be more resistant to pests or weather, to grow larger crops, and is currently being tested to see if the nutrition of the plant can be improved. Produce sticker labels let you decide what to buy and what to eat.

#2 The Serving Size

The next thing to look for are the nutrition labels that are on most packaged foods. This includes foods like cereals, cookies, chips, and even some packaged meats, vegetables, and fruits. These labels can be quite confusing and misleading at times. Looking at more than just the front of the packaging is very important. Yes, a food can be “heart healthy” on the front, but could actually have a lot of added sugar, coloring, or unwanted chemicals when you read the nutritional label.

The serving size can be found towards the top of the nutritional label. This is going to help you decide how much to eat. This in itself can be misleading as well. When food is pre-packaged, such as pop-tarts, you would think that the one package of two pastries would be one serving. It’s not! One pastry is a serving, so when you grab one package of pop-tarts on your way out in the morning you are actually eating two servings. I am not saying you can’t eat two servings of something, but it’s important for you to know what you are actually eating. You could be eating more sugar or fat that you want without reading food labels. Another example is cereal.  Most cereals serving size is between ¾ cup to about 1 cup. A lot of us just full up their bowls and without realizing it can be eating two or three servings. So, by checking out the serving size, you can adjust the rest of the nutrients on the label by multiplying each nutrient by how many servings you want to eat. The serving size will help you keep track of the micro and macro nutrients if you are keeping track or trying to balance your nutrients, and will make sure that you are not accidentally over eating.

#3 Calories

This is found just under the serving size and includes calories and calories from fat. Calories are basically our bodies energy, like gas for a car. We need to make sure we take in enough energy for our activity level, but not go over by too much otherwise we can gain weight. Your healthcare provider can help you find how many calories per day would be good for you but most food labels are written for a 2000 calorie per day diet. When it comes to calories from fat, you only want about 20-30% of the calories to come from fat. Eating foods with a higher percentage of calories from fat can increase your chances of different health conditions such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, weight gain and others.

#4 Fat

Not all fats are created equal. Some fats are healthier than others and some should be avoided or limited whenever possible. The healthiest are monounsaturated fats. These come from plant-based sources like nuts, seeds, olives, and avocados. Trans fats are considered to be the unhealthiest type of fat and should be avoided as much as possible. Small amounts of trans fats are found in natural foods like meat, but are mostly found in processed foods and fried foods. Saturated fat come from most animal products and can be bad for your health if consumed in excess.

#5 Carbohydrates and Sugar

Carbohydrates are found in most foods including grains, fruits, vegetables, dairy and sugars. Our bodies need the sugar we get from carbohydrates to create energy. There are two different kinds of carbohydrates, simple and complex carbs. Simple carbs that usually come from processed foods, like breads, cookies, and chips, and are quicker to digest, but can cause unwanted blood sugar spikes. Complex carbs, on the other hand, are from whole grains, fruits, and vegetables. They take longer to digest but will increase blood more slowly and are considered healthier. Carbs usually should be about 45-65% of your daily calorie intake. When it comes to sugar, natural sugars are the best options. Limiting your sugar intake helps avoid having too many empty calories. By empty calories I mean calories that don’t give you much or any nutritional value. A good example of an empty calorie food would be soda. They are high in sugar and sodium, and don’t have anything else to boost your national intake.

#6 Fiber

The fiber of the food can be found below the carbohydrates on the food label. Fiber is important for your body because it helps with digestion, it slows down the sugar that is being absorbed into your bloodstream, helping you avoid sugar spikes and helps keep your gut healthy and happy.

#7 Vitamins and Minerals

A lot of processed foods have added vitamins and minerals. You may have seen cereal boxes, milk, and juice cartons say that its fortified or enriched. That just means that they added different nutrients to the food. There are several reasons for fortifying and enriching foods. In the past, the government had companies add nutrients to common foods because the population was having nutritional deficiencies. During the Great Depression, they did this to flour and milk. Another reason is to replace some of the nutrients lost during processing.

#8 % DV (Daily Value)

Another thing to look for on a label is the % DV (Daily Value). This is the minimum daily recommendation of each item that our government has determined for the generally average healthy population should have per day to prevent malnutrition or other health conditions. This amount could be what you need, but depending on your physical activity, health, and overall body chemistry, you may need more or less of a given nutrient. Getting the minimum daily value of each nutrient is a good place to start and if you want a more specific guideline to follow, I recommend talking to your healthcare provider to find out if you need more or less of anything.  

#10 Ingredient List

Last but not least on this list of what to look for on food labels is the ingredient list. It is generally found at the very bottom of the nutrition label and shows what is in the food. The first ingredient is what the food is mostly made up of. For example, in most cereals that would be something like whole grain oats, rice, bran, or wheat. All ingredients after that are shown in decreasing order. So, there is less of the second ingredient than the first and so on. When it comes to processed foods, you want to look for the ones that have the fewest ingredients. Those are generally considered a little bit healthier since they typically don’t have all the ingredients that you are unable to pronounce or the ones that you want to limit or avoid.

Speaking of the ingredients that you want to limit or avoid all together, these are ingredients that are generally considered unhealthy, and are found to increase your chances of certain health issues or cause unwanted side effects.  Try to limit or avoid palm oil, corn syrup, artificial sweeteners, artificial colors, MSG (monosodium glutamate), all hydrogenated oils, nitrites/nitrates, sodium benzoate and potassium benzoate.

The next time you are at the grocery store, take a few minutes to check out the labels on your favorite foods. Looking at these 10 things on the label will help you know what is in the food you eat and aid in achieving your health and nutritional goals.