How to Read Nutrition Labels


Unless you have been living under a rock or in some remote Island in the Pacific, you probably know it’s smart to check out the nutrition facts when you pick up a packaged food. But it’s not necessarily the first thing you should be looking at. Before you search for the protein, fiber, sugar, fat, and calories, look down the label on the ingredients list.  Here are four important things you’ll learn from that (ideally short) list.

1. See what your food is *really* made of.

A pretty picture (fruit) or a wholesome description (made with whole grains!) on the front of the package might suggest one thing, but the ingredients list is where you’ll get the real story.

 “Ingredients are listed by weight, with the first three to five ingredients typically making up 80 percent of the product,” says Ali Miller, R.D., author of Naturally Nourished: Food-As-Medicine for Optimal Health.

If you spot clean, minimally processed ingredients—whole foods such as fruit or nuts—near the top, you can feel good knowing those ingredients make up the bulk of the food. But the opposite is also true. If the first few ingredients on the list are things such as sugar or refined flour, then you’re eating mostly, well, sugar and refined flour. In fact, the ingredients list is a much better indicator of how much added sugar is in whatever you're eating, since the grams listed under nutrition facts include all sugar, including the kind that naturally occurs in fruit, vegetables, and dairy. 

2. Think outside the calorie box

The nutrition label is a quick way to help you rate a food on a pass/fail basis. If it meets your needs for things such as calories, protein, fiber, or fat grams, it passes. But it doesn’t tell you whether your food is actually an A+, a C, or a D-.

Just because a food has a certain number of calories or macronutrient grams doesn’t automatically mean it’ll give you the most nutritional bang for your buck, explains registered dietitian Jess Cording. “A slice of white bread and a slice of sprouted grain both deliver around 100 calories," she says. "But the white bread is made with refined grains that will cause your blood sugar to quickly spike and crash, while the sprouted brain is made with whole grains that offer nutrients such as fiber and B vitamins,” she says.

3. Identify the ingredients you want to avoid ASAP.

If there’s something specific you’re looking to steer clear of, scanning the ingredients list is the best—and sometimes the only—way to do it. Sure, there are label certifications that can tell you whether a food is gluten-free or made without GMOs. And while those are important, you can’t rely on verifications for every single ingredient. After all, there’s no third-party certification guaranteeing a food is free of strawberries or cilantro.

Checking the ingredients can help you avoid the ones you dislike or have intolerance to. But it’s also important for avoiding ones that are straight-up dangerous, like trans fats. For now, foods can contain up to 0.5 grams trans fats per serving and still list 0 grams per serving on the nutrition panel. (Starting in 2018, manufacturers will no longer be allowed to add trans fats to packaged foods.) For now, the only way to tell for sure whether your food is truly trans fat-free is to check the ingredients list for hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oils, Cording says.

4. Note if the food is minimally processed.

News flash: The term natural isn’t regulated. So if you’re looking for a packaged food made with ingredients that legit come from nature, the ingredients list is where you go. Note to self:  See a bunch of unrecognizable, hard-to-pronounce words?  Proceed with caution, that can be a sign the food in question is highly processed like monosodium glutamate and butylated hydroxyanisole. See a list of real foods you could actually buy yourself? Now you’ve got something with ingredients that are much closer to their natural state, Miller says.

The Bottom Line

Nutrition panels are chock-full of good information, and they can help you track your calories and macronutrients. But they're only part of the whole picture. Next time you’re thinking about buying a packaged food, make the ingredients list your first stop. Once you’re sure it meets your standards, you can start thinking