6 Ways to Demystify Food Labels

It seems like there aren’t nearly enough hours in the day to get enough sleep, let alone eat healthfully. Grab-and-go options are getting better, or at least they want it to seem that way. But can you really trust the health claims on packaged foods? Kind bars continue to grow in popularity among healthy-eating enthusiasts, but the company recently came under fire for improper labeling based on the Food and Drug Administration’s standards.

A growing interest in healthy eating and focusing on natural ingredients means consumers are looking for better choices in the packaged foods they buy, but it’s hard to tell what’s actually healthy. In 2010, the FDA cracked down on 17 different food companies for making false claims on their packaging.

Even foods we know to be unhealthy are trying to promote a healthier image in any way they can. Pepsi, Coke, and Dr. Pepper joined forces for a campaign they call Mixify as a way to encourage people to balance what they eat with their exercise habits. With so much conflicting information, getting to know the ins and outs of nutrition labels is crucial. Follow these tips to learn what to look for and what to avoid.

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1. Number of calories per serving

It might sound obvious, but the best place to start when looking at nutrition labels is the calorie count. The Washington Post reported that most Americans have no idea how many calories they’re eating. A report included in the story found that 25% of people who dined at fast food restaurants underestimated how much they ate by at least 500 calories.

Calorie calculators, like this one from Mayo Clinic, are a good place to get a baseline estimate of your caloric needs. Try to make food choices based on those guidelines; you can always adjust.

Keep in mind, though, that quality matters more than quantity. Runner’s World explained the importance of getting the most of your nutritional needs from real, healthy foods. If it’s a choice between a bag of chips or a piece of fruit, the produce is undoubtedly the better option.

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2. Serving size

While it might make sense to package foods according to individual serving sizes, that’s rarely the case. For instance, Pop Tarts come in packs of two, but a serving is just one of those pastries. The key is spotting the tiny serving size indicator at the top of the label. Those calorie counts are completely inaccurate if you’re eating two or three servings in a sitting.

The Huffington Post reported on the FDA’s proposal to change portion sizes to offer a more realistic picture of what people actually eat. Until that happens, just keep an eye on the number of servings in a package compared to the amount you consume. If you’re worried about eating too many right out of a bag, try portioning out the proper amount and then putting the rest away.

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3. Sugar and sweeteners

Americans have a major sweet tooth, and many food companies capitalize on that addiction by adding tons of the sweet stuff to their products. According to Forbes, the average American eats three pounds of sugar each week. That’s not exactly great for your waistline, but weight isn’t the only concern. The Harvard Medical School reported that eating too much sugar leads to an increased risk of heart disease, even for people who aren’t overweight.

Spotting sugar isn’t as easy as it once was, either. Be on the lookout for other sweeteners that can masquerade as healthier alternatives. Maple syrup and honey contain trace amounts of minerals that offer some health benefits, but that doesn’t mean they’re really healthier. FitDay explained that both honey and sugar are natural products. “You’re stomach doesn’t care whether you ingest white sugar or honey once it enters your bloodstream,” it says. “To your body, sugar is sugar.”

Also be on the lookout for things like corn syrup and some other, less familiar, ingredients. This fact sheet from Colorado State University sheds a little more light on how many different ways there are to get a sugar rush. Be on the lookout for ingredients that end in “ose.”

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4. Too much sodium

Most Americans, especially children, eat way too much salt. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends no more than 2,300 milligrams per day, yet most of us exceed that by a substantial amount. Too much of this flavor-enhancing ingredient can lead to scores of health problems, such as heart disease and stroke.

According to the American Heart Association, more than 75% of the salt we consume comes from packaged foods. That means it’s time to start tallying your totals, keeping in mind the salt you add to foods cooked at home. Fortunately, there are more products taking this into account. Cooking Light offers some great tips on what types of products are living up to the low-sodium claims.

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5. Types and amounts of fat

The debate over fat goes back for decades. The 1990s saw a huge boom in fat-free and low-fat products that consumers couldn’t get enough of. NPR revealed this craze didn’t do much to make the country healthier. In fact, Americans actually continued to gain weight during this time. Mary Flynn, a Brown University medical professor, said in the story that “avoiding fat is not the key to a healthy diet.”

So what does that mean for nutrition labels? Pay attention to types of fat. The San Francisco Chronicle reported a story about the different kinds of fats and what they mean for your body. Both saturated and trans fats can be harmful, while monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats can help reduce the risk of heart disease. Don’t overdo it on the healthy fats, though, because they still pack just as many calories.

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6. Unpronounceable ingredients

Looking at the list of ingredients in packaged foods can be even more confusing than looking at the nutrition label. You might see plenty of things you recognize, but you’re also likely to find quite a few words that leave you scratching your head. Business Insider revealed that tons of chemicals go into foods to improve flavor. Research continues to debate the pros and cons of different additives, so the jury’s still out.

If you feel uneasy about the ingredients you see on a packaged food, you might just want to skip it.

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