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How to Read a Food Label | Complete Health by Sunny Brigham
shopping cart in a grocery store

How to Read a Food Label

At some point in your life, maybe even this past weekend, you’ve been inside a grocery store. You’ve picked up an item you wanted to buy. And you looked at the nutrition label.

You know, that label on the side or back of a package that has the calories and fat grams on it? It can be confusing. Mainly because most people look at the wrong parts of it.

When you flip it over, where do your eyes go? Calories, right? That’s where most people’s eyes go when they look at the nutrition facts label.

This week, we’re de-mystifying the food label and teaching you how to read food labels for healthy eating.

New vs Old Label

In 2016, the FDA came out with new requirements for food labels. The requirement was to update serving sizes, make calories larger, add in added sugars, and a few other peripheral changes.

The best thing, in my opinion, is the addition of added sugars. The average American consumes about 70g of sugar each day. The recommended limit is 25-35g/day.

Here’s what the old and new labels look like side by side:

new vs old nutrition facts label
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You may have seen the new label already and just didn’t know it was new. Some companies are already using it. When the guidelines were first published, companies had to make the switch by 2019.

However, after some complaints were lodged, the FDA pushed back their deadline. If a company makes less than $10M annually, they must have all their labels switched to the new format by January 2020. But if a company makes more than $10M, they have until January 2021 to make the switch.

But, as I said, you’ll already see the new label on many products in the stores. Regardless of whether a product has the old or new label, there are parts your eyes should go to when reading a label. And you should be reading food labels.

Top 3 Most Important Pieces of the Food Label

In my opinion, there are 3 important parts of the label. The entire label is important. But if you’re short on time, these are the 3 areas your eyes should go to when scanning a label quickly.

Fats
Carbohydrates (fiber/sugar)
Ingredients

Notice I didn’t mention calories? Yes, calories are important. But the content of those calories matter much more. And you learn the content by reading the ingredients list. I’ve talked about this in-depth in a recent blog. You can read that one here.

But we get wrapped around the axel when it comes to calories. We formulate our entire diet around calories. We fret and fuss over calories. And it usually gets us nowhere. So, let’s stop focusing on calories, mkay?

Let’s explore the 3 places your eyes should go on a food label. Now, these are in order as they appear on the label. They’re not in order of importance.

Fats

I know this seems a little weird, but fat is an important part to look at. But not for the reason you think.

Back in the 1990s, we were focused on low-fat diets. This isn’t good because we need fat for healthy brain, eye, and gallbladder function. As well as some other important reasons. We had been led to believe that fat makes us fat. So, we cut it out.

Bad move muchacha!

But, we still need to focus on fat. Not the amount (unless you have the APOE4 genetic mutation), but the type of fat. Here’s what is usually shown on the label for fat:

fat grams on nutrition label

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Sometimes, you’ll see a label that also lists polyunsaturated fat and monounsaturated fat. Those are good fats. And if the label lists them, great! But trans-fat and saturated fat should be limited.

Now, I’ve already written a lengthy blog on the dangers of saturated fat. I’m not going to rehash old information. But, saturated fat should be limited for genetic purposes. Not for cholesterol or blockages in the arteries. You can check out that blog here.

Trans fats are man-made. They add a hydrogen molecule to liquid vegetable oil to make it solid at room temperature. Think about margarine. Remember leaving a container out all day and it never melting? That’s the trans fat!

Trans fats are inflammatory to the body. They raise LDL (bad cholesterol). They’ve also been linked to hardening of the arteries. So, trans fats should also be limited or excluded completely.

Carbohydrates/Fiber

Let’s move down the label to the next section that’s super important. The carbs. Again, not for the reason you think. Carbs aren’t bad. Different types of carbs are better than others. But we need carbs.

I’m more interested in the type of carbs in a food. Here’s what you’ll see on a label:

carbs on an old nutrition label
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carbs on a new nutrition label
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The new label makes it easier to read. But since the old label is still around for a bit, I’ll talk about both.

When it comes to carbs, you should be concerned about the fiber and sugar contained in the carbs. Not the grams of carbs themselves. When you have a food that is very high in carbs but very low in fiber, you’ve got a highly-processed food in your hands. Place it back on the shelf and step away slowly.

In reference to fiber, a good rule of thumb is Harvard’s 10:1 ratio. This is a quick trick to understand if the product you’re holding has more whole grains or is more processed. Yes, it requires a little math. But it’s not hard…promise!

Let’s imagine you’re holding a package of food that has 40g of carbs and 2g of fiber per serving. You might think, “Yes! It’s got fiber!” But not so fast.

Start by dividing the total carbs per serving by 10. In this scenario, you get 4. Are there more carbs than fiber? If the answer is yes, put it back on the shelf.

Now, let’s say we have a package that contains 23g of carbs and 3g of fiber per serving. If we divide 23 by 10, we get 2.3. That’s fewer carbs than fiber. It’s okay to buy!

When it comes to sugar, the new label is super handy. You want to keep added sugars below 25g per day for women and 35g per day for men. Now, I think these numbers should be much lower. But what do I know? 🤗

Ingredients

And for the last important part of the food label. The ingredients. We don’t scan this enough. When I teach clients how to read labels, their eyes go to the numbers. Because that’s what we’ve been told to do.

But after you scan the fats and carbs, keep scanning down until you get to the ingredients. Here are a few rules of thumb I use when reading ingredients:

1. If it has more than 5 ingredients, I won’t buy it (with a few exceptions like pasta sauce or salsa).
2. If it contains sugar or any sugar-like substance (ending in –ose), I’ll put it back.
3. If it contains ingredients I can’t pronounce or have to Google to define it, I’ll put it back.

Now, there are always exceptions to those but that’s what I filter most foods by. And if you’re buying more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, you won’t be doing a lot of label reading.

And don’t be fooled by fancy marketing. There are rules when it comes to phrases a manufacturer can place on a package. But they are pretty loose.

For instance, when something is listed as a whole grain product, it probably isn’t. In order to use that on a food package, it only has to contain 51% whole grains. So, 49% of that product is still processed grains with little fiber or nutrients.

Skip the words on the front and scan the label on the back.

Getting Started

Re-learning how to read a label can be tough. The hardest part is spending a little extra time in the store.

When you walk into the store, you have your usual route you take. You have your usual foods you buy. And you have a set amount of time you want to spend in the store.

The first time you go in to start reading labels, give yourself extra time. Sure, it may take you 5 minutes to find a new pasta sauce. But next time, you know exactly what pasta sauce you’re getting. The first time is the hardest. But after that, it’s smooth sailing.

Grab a staple from your pantry and practice your new label reading skills. In the comments below, let me know something that surprised you about this food after reading the label.

Sunny Brigham, MS, CNS

I'm Sunny! I'm a board-certified clinical nutritionist with an MS in Clinical Nutrition. I help individuals reduce fatigue, eliminate bloat, and lose weight by healing the digestive tract and balancing hormones. I provide individual and group nutrition consultations nationwide. Grab my metabolism boosting guide! http://completehealthsb.com/3-tips-to-boost-your-metabolism/

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