Splattered all over a food package are words, images, lists, labels, symbols and logos, and sometimes it’s hard to know if the product fits with your buying needs.
Although a product’s packaging can seem complex, if you know this secret, it’s actually pretty simple to understand it. You’ll always know where to look when making a decision about a box of crackers, can of soup, or any other processed food item.
We take the price of a product into account, but there’s usually a more pressing decision to be made. More of us want to know if the food product is loaded with chemicals, or we might be concerned about how much fat, protein, sugar or salt is in it. With allergies so prevalent, people are also looking to see if a product is nut-free or gluten-free.
Today, many people are becoming more concerned about what they put in their bodies, and they want to know if a food is healthy or not. Based on our own definitions of health or healthy eating, we need to determine if the product is good for us, or if it’s not.
If it’s a food item the family eats daily, you might try to pick one that has the most vitamins or that has less sugar. If it’s a treat, like brownies or potato chips that you buy only once in a while, you might be less concerned about the “bad” stuff.
Either way, you want the tools to determine if you’re going to spend your hard earned money on it or not.
This post will give you the low-down on what to watch for, but if you want an expanded version with more details and examples (FREE), consider getting my Free Reading Labels Guide (with handy cheat sheets).
Let’s look at food packaging based on three areas.
The first is the general stuff that’s all around the packaging. It’s designed to be appealing to the eye and often includes lots of colour. The general area of the package is also structured to create an emotion in you: excitement, comfort, etc.
General Packaging Design
On the general packaging you’ll likely see…
- Bright colors
- Brand name
- Brand logo
- Product name
- Weight or volume of product
- Manufacturing or distribution company details
- Bar Code
- Product claims, highlights/features, such as “light”, “50% less fat” or “30 calories per tablespoon”
The second area of packaging is the nutrition label. Most people are familiar with this government-mandated part of a package, and they often rely on the nutrition label to make a purchasing decision. It shows you the amount of each nutrient by weight, and the daily percentage value (based on a 2000 calorie day), of certain nutrients in the product.
The last area of food packaging is the ingredients list, which lists all the ingredients used to make the product.
Let’s take a closer look at the three areas, so you can avoid mistakes and be in-the-know about how to make the best food-purchasing decisions for you and your family.
The claims made by the company selling a product are aimed at convincing you that their product is good (light, low salt, tasty, healthy, etc.). However, often those claims can be misleading.
A product such as low/no fat salad dressing will feature its fat-free quality in big letters where you can see it, but when you look closely, you might notice the sugar and/or salt content is high (to add more taste, since some or all of the fat has been removed). Having a low-fat product might be important to you, but you may not want the added sugar or salt in order to eat low fat.
The features of the general area of food packaging are meant to lure you into the product and to buy it. So, overall, it’s NOT what you want to focus on when buying.
The other two areas (nutrition labels and ingredients) have valuable information, but it’s important to know HOW to read these areas of a food package, so you’re not tricked, and so you get accurate information.
*This is one of the most important part of a food label to understand because it is where food manufacturers mislead us. My FREE Guide to Reading Food Labels will give you the low down.
When looking at the nutrition label DO NOT look at the percentages listed beside each nutrient. They don’t give you any valuable information. If you buy a can of soup, and see that the percentage value for fat is 14%, what does that mean to you? Are you going to go home and plan how much fat you eat at each meal to know if you reach or exceed 100% of the daily value for fat? Probably not.
What some people mistakenly do is glance at the 14%, and in their minds, think, “Oh, this soup is only 14% fat”. Not true! Even if we know that’s not what the percentage means, we can think that because that percentage is there.
To avoid making this mistake while reading the nutrition label, let’s look at what you need to do to be a savvy consumer.
Look only at the grams (g) for the nutrient you’re interested in.
How much fat is in it? Sugar? Salt?
You might be wondering now, “So what? The label shows grams; I don’t know how many grams of fat I should have. The grams don’t mean anything to me.”
That’s ok. It’s not the grams, by themselves, that are so important, but it’s what you can do with your knowledge of the grams.
When it comes to a nutrition label, you need to know…
…what proportion of the product a particular nutrient represents.
Let’s take a closer look at the fat in that can of soup.
Holy moly! 67.5% of each spoonful of this soup is fat. I’m not a dietician, but even I know that’s high.
Most people make the mistake of not figuring out the proportion of nutrients in their food. Knowing how to do this is huge!
Don’t worry about the math. When you’re in the grocery store, you can just do an estimate in your head, or you can pull out your phone and use your calculator.
Another area of the nutrition label to watch is the serving size. Companies are counting on us to focus on the nutrients, but often when you factor in the serving size, you’ll see a problem.
The can of soup pictured above has a serving size of 1/2 cup (125 mL). Do you know what half a cup looks like? It’s pretty small when you think about half a cup of soup in your bowl. Most people would have 4 servings (2 cups).
If companies put a serving size more realistic to what people actually eat, then we’d become more aware of how many calories we’re eating. That could mean that we’d eat less of the product (and buy less), or it could mean we wouldn’t buy the product in the first place.
If you increase the serving size of this soup, the percentage of fat stays the same; your soup is 67.5% fat whether you have 1/2 cup or 2 cups.
However, you’re definitely consuming more fat, overall. When you have 1/2 cup of soup, you’re getting 9 grams of fat, but when you have 2 cups (a much more likely event), you’re now eating 4 times the amount of fat in a serving, which is 36 grams of fat!
Although the percentage of fat in the soup is the same, by eating more fat, you are increasing the percentage of fat you eat in the day.
For example, let’s imagine it’s the end of the day and you’ve eaten 1800 calories. Out of all the food you’ve eaten that day, 500 of those calories (28%) were fat (500/1800 = 27.77%).
Now let’s add 2 cups of that soup (4 servings) as a snack while you’re watching TV. Now your calories for the day are 2280 (1800 + 480). When you factor in the fat from the soup, you’ve now had 980 (500 + 480) calories, or 43% of your calories from fat at the end of your day (980/2280 = 42.98%). That soup made a considerable difference in your overall fat intake and percentage for your day because the soup is high in fat.
How much fat should you have?
There’s nothing wrong with a little fat in our diet. We need fat as a nutrient, but we don’t need too much. Some sources will tell you that 30% of your diet as fat is ok, but others say it should be kept to only 10%. If you’re trying to watch your weight or your heart, you’ll want to keep your fat intake low. Aim for less than 20%.
If you are trying to lose weight, and you’ve never calculated the percentage of fat in your food from a food label (or through a nutrient-tracking app), give it a try and see what happens. If you reduce your fat intake over time, you’ll likely lose weight because fat has a high number of calories (compared to sugar and protein, which both have only 4 calories per gram). Of course, if you eat more calories overall, to compensate, then the weight won’t come off.
What about Salt?
The soup can shows 850 mg of salt. For this nutrient, there’s no proportion to figure out. Instead, you want to compare the salt amount to the calories. The general rule of thumb is to keep the salt amount to no higher than the number of calories.
Note: sodium is salt, and it is noted in mg (not g).
In this case, there are 120 calories in one serving of soup, so the salt amount should be 120 mg or less. You’ll find that in a processed food product, it’s very rare for the salt to fit with the rule of thumb. Knowing this trick, however, can help you decide if a product’s salt level is too high, just a little bit high, or right on target.
Let’s talk Sugar
The sugar in this soup product is low. Only 1 g. If you want to know the proportion of the soup that’s sugar, then you’d apply the same formula we used for fat intake. The only difference is that 1 gram of sugar has only 4 calories (not 9, like 1 g of fat).
In the case of the soup, 1 g of sugar = 4 calories. 4/120 = 3.33% sugar.
Note on Carbs and Protein:
You can apply the same formula if you want to know the percentage of carbs per serving as well. 1 g of carbohydrate = 4 calories. In the soup, 8 g = 32 calories/12o = 27%.
Interested in the protein? Use the same formula you used for sugar/carbs. 1 g of protein = 4 calories. In this case, 2 g of protein = 8 calories. 8/120 = 6.66% protein.
Back to sugar….
Beware of sugar in some products. Especially products that claim to be healthy, or ones you consume on a daily basis, like cereal.
Honey Nut Cheerios is one third sugar. Every bite is 34.3% sugar. That’s a little high.
Total sugar = 12 g per 1 cup serving
12 x 4 (4 calories in each gram of sugar) = 48 calories
48 / 140 (total calories) = 34%
If you have kids, try not to give in to their pleas to eat the sugary cereals that come in colorful boxes. Look at Cap’n Crunch. It’s almost half sugar at 45% (17 x 4 = 68 calories from sugar; 68/150 = 45.33%).
Please beware…many companies lower their serving size, so you think you’re getting less fat, sugar or salt in their products.
Other Information on the Nutrition Label
I personally don’t pay attention to the other parts of the nutrition label. When I think about fiber and vitamins and minerals, I know it’s best to get those from fruits and vegetables mainly. I don’t look to processed foods for my nutrition.
The saturated and trans fat amounts on a label can be relevant, though. Saturated fat should be low, and transfat amounts should be zero (beware: companies lower the serving size so the transfats will be zero, which means that two servings might have transfats…think potato chips!). Overall, I don’t pay attention to these two fats; I just look at the overall fat.
Milk Fat…Buyer Beware
I bring up milk at the end because you now have a good understanding of how to calculate a nutrient in a food.
I also save milk for the end of the post because it’s one of the most misleading products out there in terms of how companies promote the fat content. Yes, they do tell you how many grams of fat the milk contains, but they specifically list a percentage of fat on the product, and this is the tricky part.
When you buy 2% milk, you think it’s only 2% fat, right? Awesome…chug away!
WRONG. It’s much higher.
There are other products that are also deceptive in their labeling of fat, but milk is one of those foods that so many people consume on a daily basis, and that so many people think is low in fat.
Milk companies give you the percentage of fat by the weight of the product. Now that you know it’s the percentage of calories from fat that’s more important when consuming fat, let’s have a closer look at milk.
Don’t be fooled by nutrition labels. Always calculate a nutrient based on its proportion of the total calories.
- 1 g fat = 9 calories
- 1 g sugar = 4 calories
- 1 g protein = 4 calories
- salt mg < or = to total calories
This is the third and last area of food packaging you should know about. I could write a whole blog post just about the ingredients in products because there are so many to avoid and because there are so many variations. For our purposes, however, we’ll cover the basics.
The ingredients are important because they tell you what you’re actually eating. Is it a chemical? Is it a highly refined ingredient? Is it a whole ingredient? A natural ingredient?
Start with these guidelines.
1. Aim for as few ingredients as possible (3 or less is awesome; 5 or less is good too). When you look at an ingredient list and see it’s packed with many ingredients, you know it’s highly processed and generally not healthy. The image below shows the ingredients of a frozen pizza…yikes! That’s a long list!
2. Aim for ingredients you can understand. You know what onions and sunflower oil are, but do you know what BHT or sodium ascorbate are? Too often, we trust that our food products are safe. If you don’t know what something in the list is… Google it.
3. Ingredients are listed in descending order, from the highest amount to lowest amount (ingredients used in the greatest amount are listed first; those used in lesser amounts follow).
4. The first ingredient is the most important to pay attention to, followed by the next two ingredients because this means that the product is made mainly of those three ingredients.
5. The ingredient list will also include the names of any chemicals, additives, preservatives etc., although not always. Regulations allow companies to include terms like “natural flavors”, which can be something that sounds healthy, but may not be. A natural flavor must originate from a natural source, but often, it’s chemically modified, and there’s nothing natural about it.
6. Start to learn just what some ingredients really mean. “Wheat flour” just means it’s from wheat. It’s not a whole grain and is highly refined. Ever seen “spices” listed in the ingredients? Who knows what that is. Why not list the spices? Even if companies don’t want to list their proprietary ingredients, you, as the consumer, really don’t know what you’re eating.
Here’s a peek at the ingredients from that can of soup.
This soup has 13 ingredients. The first three are water, mushrooms and vegetable oil.
I’d rather see oil further down the list; so many food products use a lot of oil, which is 100% fat. Based on how companies list their ingredients, I don’t know the exact amount of oil in this soup, although I know it’s a lot, based on the high percentage of fat (67.5%).
Start paying attention to those ingredients lists. What exactly is modified food starch? Sounds ok, but what is it? It’s a food additive that can be made from a variety of foods, like wheat or corn. You can’t be certain what you’re eating. Monosodium glutamate? That’s MSG. It’s a flavor enhancer that most people have heard of. It’s controversial whether it’s safe or not.
Now that you have the scoop to really see what’s in your food, it’s important to remember that most of us will consume processed foods at some point, even if we aim to be very healthy. Once in a while, and if you don’t have any health issues already, eating foods with questionable ingredients is not really going to hurt you.
However, what your “once in a while” is, and what mine is, might be different. The point is that you don’t want to be consuming highly processed ingredients on a regular basis. If you’re concerned about what you put in your mouth, pay attention to what’s in the ingredients list. Even better, try to eat mostly whole foods that don’t have an ingredient list, like apples, potatoes and kale–I’m not getting into organic vs non organic vs genetically modified foods, but at least fruits and vegetables are more real than processed food in a package.
When I pick up a food product in the store, I first look at the ingredients list. I’m far from perfect, but if I’m aiming for health, I choose the product with the fewest ingredients that seem familiar to me. If I’m feeling like a treat, I may not worry about the ingredients.
Once I look at the ingredients, I make sure to look over the nutrition label to check on the fat and sugar content. I glance at the salt too, but that’s usually not my focus because, overall, I eat mostly whole foods I make at home.
Whatever your definition of healthy eating is, knowing how to read food labels is an essential skill for living in today’s world of processed and ultra-processed foods.
When you make decisions in the supermarket, be informed. Take the extra minute or two to know what’s in your food. Getting familiar with food packaging takes a bit of time, but once you know the secrets to making more informed choices, it will eventually become second nature.
If you want to see the expanded version with more details and accompanying cheat sheets, grab my Free Reading Labels Guide.
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