6 Tips for Making Sense of Nutrition Labels

by | Updated: March 2nd, 2017 | Read time: 4 minutes

To many of us, nutrition information on food products at the grocery store is harder to digest than the spiciest of Buffalo wings. What do all of those numbers and words mean, anyway?

6 Tips for Making Sense of Nutrition Labels

If nutrition information numbs your mind, don’t feel bad. In a study published in December by the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, researchers from Canada’s McGill University found that government-mandated Nutrition Facts labels appearing on most food products in the U.S. and Canada deliver a less-than-fulfilling dose of information.

“One product may be low in fat, but high in sugar, while another product may be just the opposite. Nutrition Facts labels can highlight nutrition conflicts but fail to resolve them,” Peter Helfer, lead author of the study and a doctoral student at McGill, said in a news release. “Even educated and motivated shoppers have difficulty picking out the most nutritious product with these labels.”

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has proposed revamping American food labels to make them clearer. In the meantime, if you don’t want to be labeled a nutrition neophyte, follow these six tips for grasping facts and ingredients on food packages.

1. Watch the serving size.

Dr. Jamie Schehr, a naturopathic physician and registered dietitian, says serving sizes on nutrition labels can be misleading. For instance, a label might indicate that a food product contains 150 calories per serving. However, many of us overlook the fact the entire container provides two servings, translating into a total of 300 calories.

“This is commonly misunderstood on labels and can cause people to consume significantly more than one portion without realizing what they are eating,” Schehr says.

2. Study the ingredients.

Registered dietitian and food blogger Katy Bloxsom says manufacturers can get away with adding small amounts of trans fat — less than 0.5 grams per serving — to food products.

“The best way to avoid trans fat is to read the ingredients. Anything with the words ‘hydrogenated’ or ‘partially hydrogenated’ indicates trans fat and should be a red flag,” Bloxsom warns.

On top of that, an ingredient like sugar might be hiding under a different identity, such as dextrose, glucose, sucrose or fructose, nutrition experts say.

Keep in mind that 4 grams of sugar equals a teaspoon, so a fruity yogurt with 32 grams of sugar packs 8 teaspoons of sugar, says registered dietitian Elizabeth Somer, author of Eat Your Way to Happiness.

“Unfortunately, current labels do not differentiate between added sugar and the natural sugars in fruit, which is why you must check the ingredient list for those sneaky ingredients,” Somer says.

3. Know your GMOs.

When we’re heading down the grocery aisle, many of us want to steer our shopping carts away from foods containing genetically modified organisms, or GMOs. But how do you know which products to purchase and which ones to pass up?

Given that no labeling is required for foods with GMOs, nutrition and cooking coach Libby Mills, national spokeswoman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, recommends:

  • Looking for foods labeled “organic.” Under federal law, these foods can’t contain GMOs.
  • Seeking out non-GMO certification. Products with this seal of approval are tested to ensure their ingredients are less than 1 percent GMOs.
  • Staying away from processed foods. An estimated 60 percent to 70 percent of processed foods contain GMOs such as soy or corn, according to Mills.

4. Don’t mix up “organic” and “natural.”

“Organic” and “natural” are not food synonyms. “Organic” refers to how food is grown and processed, Mills says. Any food identified as organic must meet standards set by the National Organic Program. Those standards include bans on GMOs, synthetic pesticides and growth hormones.

Meanwhile, “natural” means a food has gone through minimal processing and lacks ingredients like artificial sweeteners and hydrogenated oils, Mills says. “Most foods labeled ‘natural’ are regulated only by health codes that apply to all foods,” she says.

5. Don’t overvalue the “values” section.

Schehr says the “Percent Daily Values” part of a Nutrition Facts label is based on consuming 2,000 calories a day, so this figure offers a “vague understanding” of a food product’s nutrients and doesn’t apply to the dietary needs of a lot of folks.

6. Ignore the hype.

Somer cautions that buzzwords like “whole grain,” “natural” and ”gluten-free” don’t necessarily mean a food product is healthy. Check the ingredient list and the Nutrition Facts label to be sure that what you’ll be putting in your mouth actually is good for you, she says. On the grain front, for instance, wheat flour is not the same as whole wheat flour; rather, it’s refined white flour.