Understanding Food Labels and Ingredient Lists

By Nicole Goben, MS, RD, CDN

Trying to choose healthy products in the grocery store has turned into tricky business. Food companies may try to market their product to seem healthier than it is, and many consumers are tricked by their tactics. It is important to take a look at the nutrition fact label as well as the ingredient list to make an informed decision about the food you purchase. Here are some tips to navigate the food package and make an informed decision.

Front of Package

Companies will lure you into making your food purchasing decision based on the front of the package. Food products display many different symbols and statements proclaiming health benefits that can mislead consumers into thinking that a product is healthier than it really is. For example, a Fruit Loop cereal box claims “Good Source of Fiber & Made with Whole Grain” on the front of the package. While that may be true, this food is also high in added sugars and may not be the best breakfast option. Try to ignore the front of package health claims and look at the nutrition label and ingredient list.

Nutrition Fact Label

The nutrition fact label states how many calories and nutrients are in a single serving of the product. The most important part of the nutrition fact label is to first understand the serving size. If there are three servings in a bag that could easily be eaten in one sitting, you have to multiply each number on the food label by three to see the nutritional content of what you’re really eating.

Ingredient List

The ingredient list is where we get into the nitty-gritty of decision making. While sometimes it may feel like deciphering a foreign language, there are a few tips to make it simpler.

  • First, keep in mind that product ingredients are listed by highest quantity to lowest quantity based on weight. Therefore, the first few ingredients listed will make up the largest part of what you’re eating.
  • Next, it’s important to understand a few key words. Words that end in “-ose” such as fructose, glucose and sucrose mean added sugars, as well as corn syrup and high fructose corn syrup.
  • Additionally, if you see “partially hydrogenated oil” it means that there is trans fat in the product. Even if the nutrition facts label says a food contains “0 g” of trans fat, but includes “partially hydrogenated oil” in the ingredient list, it means the food contains trans fat, just less than 0.5 grams of trans fat per serving. Therefore if you eat more than one serving, you could quickly reach your daily recommended limit of just 2 g per day.
  • When purchasing grain products such as cereal or bread it is easy to be unsure if you’re buying a whole grain product or not. Don’t let the color of the bread mislead you, just take a look at the ingredient list. Simply look for the word “whole” before the first ingredient on the list. If it says “wheat flour” it is not a whole grain, however, if it says “whole wheat flour” it is. Whole grains are a better source of fiber and an important part of a heart-healthy diet.

Whenever possible it is best to avoid packaged and processed goods and choose whole foods such as fruits and vegetables. That way you don’t even have to worry about an ingredient list because the whole food IS the ingredient!