Food Labels Made Simple: A Practical Guide To Better Choices

Learn how to read food labels

Understanding food labels can be a daunting task.

Food manufacturers are motivated by profit, so they create products that are highly palatable and addictive. To achieve their goals, they often employ clever strategies to mislead consumers into purchasing unhealthy and highly processed products.

To break free from these deceptive practices, this article uncovers the three essential rules to navigate food labels effectively:

  1. Disregard Front-Package Claims
  2. Unravel the Ingredients List
  3. Understand the Nutrition Facts and Serving Sizes

1. Disregard Front-Package Claims

Front-package claims have the objective to increase their appeal to consumers

Front-package claims are marketing messages that manufacturers display prominently on food and beverage packages. These claims aim to influence consumer perceptions and drive purchasing decisions.

If you know how to interpret them, front-package labels may be useful. However, in most cases these very visible claims hide the true nature of the product.

The Purpose Of Front-Package Claims

Front-package claims have the objective to increase their appeal to consumers. In addition, they serve specific purposes for the food manufacturers:

Purpose Of ClaimDescription
Building Brand IdentityFront-package claims can be used to differentiate it from competitors, such as “all-natural” or “enriched”.
Highlighting Nutrient ContentThese claims emphasize the presence or absence of certain nutrients, such as “low-fat” or “high-fiber”.
Appealing To EmotionsSome claims evoke positive emotions or perceptions, such as “made with traditional recipe” or “made with love”.
Spotlighting Specific Health ClaimsThese claims focus on the potential health benefits of certain ingredients, such as “probiotics promote gut health” or “omega-3 fatty acids support cognitive function”.
Purpose Of Food Front-Package Claims

Examples Of Misleading Front-Package Health Claims

Studies observed that the presence of health claims on food labels can influence consumer perception. Furthermore, they often lead to an overestimation of the product’s overall healthfulness. [1] [2] [3] [4]

The following tables presents the most common examples of how health claims may be misused by food manufacturers.

Front-Package Claims Highlighting The PRESENCE Of Certain Nutrients

ClaimExample of Misleading Use
Made with whole grainsThis means that the food contains some whole grains. Yet, the amount of whole grains may be insignificant compared to the total amount of refined grains.
A cereal product might claim to be “made with whole grains” but contain only a small amount of them.
Multigrain“Multigrain” means that the product is made with different types of grains. But it doesn’t necessarily guarantee that these are whole grains. In fact, a bread might be “multigrain” while containing primarily refined grains.
“Good source of” or “rich in” or “high in”These claims indicate that a certain nutrient is present, yet they don’t provide a quantitative measure of the nutrient’s amount. A product can be labeled as a “good source” of a nutrient even if it contains just a small amount.
High in FiberIf a food is enriched with a modest amount of fiber, then the label may claim “high in fiber”. However, this does not guarantee that the product is high quality.
In first instance, natural fibers from real foods are more beneficial than added fibers. Secondly, food manufacturers might claim that the product is “high” in fiber even if it contains a small amount.
Finally, a product can be high in fiber and still unhealthy. For example, a granola bar might claim to be “high in fiber” while also containing a lot of sugar and saturated fat.
Fortified” or “Enriched”A certain product might be fortified with vitamins or minerals, but this doesn’t mean it’s a healthy choice. Enrichment can’t compensate for a poor overall nutritional profile. For example, fortified breakfast cereals may still be very high in sugar.
Examples Of Front-Package Health Claims Highlighting The Presence Of Certain Nutrients

Front-Package Claims Highlighting The REDUCTION Of Certain Nutrients

ClaimExample of Misleading Use
“Light” or “Low-calorie”A product labeled as “light” may have fewer calories than the original product, but it may still be high in sugar, unhealthy fats, or sodium. Often, “low-calorie” foods, such as diet sodas, contain artificial sweeteners that can negatively affect gut health, metabolism, and overall well-being. [13]
Low-fatLow-fat often means an increase in carbs to compensate for lost flavor.
Low-fat products are often marketed to people who are trying to lose weight. However, low-fat products can still be high in calories and unhealthy nutrients, such as excess sugar.
Low-carbLow-carb doesn’t necessarily correlate with overall nutritional quality.
Low-carb diets can be effective for weight loss, but low-carb products may still be high in unhealthy fats and processed ingredients.
Reduced sodiumThe term “reduced” can be misleading, as it only means that the product contains a lower amount of sodium than the original product. The actual amount of sodium in the product may still be high.
For example, a can of condensed soup labeled as “reduced sodium” may contain more than 600 milligrams of sodium per serving. This is lower than the original soup, but still high in sodium. [9]
Examples Of Front-Package Health Claims Highlighting The Reduction Of Certain Nutrients

Front-Package Claims Highlighting The ABSENCE Of Certain Nutrients

ClaimExample of Misleading Use
Gluten-freeGluten-free products are often marketed to people with celiac disease or gluten intolerance. Nonetheless, it does not guarantee they lack unhealthy ingredients. They can be just as unhealthy as non-gluten-free products.
No added sugarA product labeled as “no added sugar” may still contain a lot of natural sugars, such as fructose or glucose. Natural sugars can still contribute to weight gain and blood sugar fluctuations.
No Palm OilEven foods without palm oil can be unhealthy. For example, cookies without palm oil may still be made with refined carbohydrates and contain high amounts of sugar and other types of fat.
No Trans FatTrans fats are partially hydrogenated oils that are harmful and should be avoided also in small quantities. [14]
Trans fats are unhealthy, but they may be found in processed foods. Products labeled as “zero trans fat” may still contain partially hydrogenated oils, which can still cause harm to heart health.
For example, in the US even if a label states “zero trans fats,” one serving of the food can contain up to 0.5 grams of trans fat. [10] When eating multiple servings, the amount of trans fat may become dangerously high.
In addition, even if a product really has zero trans fats, it may still contain other unhealthy nutrients such as high levels of saturated fats or sugar.
No Artificial PreservativesThis claim often means that the product contains natural preservatives, but the product itself may still be harmful to health.
Natural preservatives come from organic matter, such as plants, animals, fungi, and algae. Salt and sugar are both natural preservative examples. [11]
A product that does not contain artificial preservatives but is rich in salt or sugar may still be not optimal for our health.
Examples Of Front-Package Health Claims Highlighting The Absence Of Certain Nutrients

Implying The Product Is Healthy

ClaimExample of Misleading Use
Non-GMOGMOs are not inherently harmful, and non-GMO often means more expensive and doesn’t guarantee superior nutrition. Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are safe for consumption, but some people prefer to avoid them.
OrganicAlthough eating organic products is certainly a good choice, organic doesn’t guarantee a healthy product overall. Organic highly processed foods can still be high in calories, and include unhealthy fats and sugars.
100% Natural“Natural” is a vague term and doesn’t guarantee the absence of artificial additives. In fact, the term “natural” is not regulated by health authorities, such as the FDA. Therefore, it can be used on a wide variety of products, even those that contain artificial ingredients or preservatives.
Heart Healthy“Heart healthy” doesn’t necessarily mean that the product is optimal for heart health. The term “heart healthy” is often used on products that are low in saturated fat and cholesterol, or that contains specific nutrients such as beta glucans. Nevertheless, it doesn’t mean that the product is healthy overall.
“Healthy” or “Healthy Choice”These general terms are vague and unregulated, making it difficult to assess the product’s true healthfulness. They are often used on products with limited nutritional value or that actually contain unhealthy ingredients. A cereal labeled as “healthy” may be high in refined grains, providing little nutritional benefit.
Examples Of Front-Package Health Claims Implying The Product Is Healthy

Just because a label makes the above claims, it does not mean that the food is healthy.

However, the opposite is also true.

Despite the above cautionary words, if a certain food presents any of the above labels, this does not mean that food is necessarily unhealthy.

In fact, many truly healthy foods are organic, natural, or whole grain.

Best To Ignore The Front-Package Claims

Front-package health claims can help in some cases. For example, to know that a certain food is organic.

However, most of these claims are almost always misleading and sometimes downright false.

This makes it impossible for consumers to make truly healthy choices based solely on front-package claims.

The best approach is to completely disregard the front-package claims.

It’s much better to base your purchase decisions exclusively on what you can read on the ingredients list and the nutrition facts label.


2. Unravel The Ingredients List

The ingredients list holds the key to unlocking the true nature of food

The ingredients list, often relegated to the back of food packages, holds the key to unlocking the true nature of food. It’s a treasure trove of information that can prevent you from falling prey to misleading marketing tactics.

Unlike the front-of-package claims that often focus on catchy slogans and vague terms, the ingredients list provides a clear picture of what the product is made of.

The ingredients are listed in descending order of quantity, meaning that the first ingredient is the one that makes up the largest proportion of the product.

Scan the first few ingredients to get a quick overview of what makes up the product.

Then, you should continue to scan the whole ingredient list. As you go on reading, note the presence of refined grains, sugars, sweeteners, salt, preservatives, and food colorings.

If you see these or other artificial ingredients listed, particularly among the first few, the product is likely very processed.

If you find partially hydrogenated oils (trans fats) at any point in the ingredients list, then don’t buy the product.

Look for products that list whole foods, such as whole grains, vegetables, fruits, and lean proteins, as their primary ingredients.

Beware Of Long Lists Of Ingredients You Don’t Understand

Long ingredient lists often signal a highly processed product with potential unhealthy components. Aim for products with ingredient lists of two to three lines or less.

Also, be careful if the list includes multiple ingredients that you don’t understand. If the list differs significantly from the list of ingredients you would use at home, then consider leaving the product on the shelf.

Uncover Sugar In Disguise

Sugar, in its various forms, is a common ingredient in processed foods. Be wary of products that list added sugars among the first few ingredients. Food manufacturers often use different names for sugar to hide its true content. Here are just some examples.

Sugars: beet sugar, brown sugar, buttered sugar, cane sugar, caster sugar, coconut sugar, date sugar, golden sugar, invert sugar, muscovado sugar, organic raw sugar, raspadura sugar, evaporated cane juice, and confectioner’s sugar.

Syrups: carob syrup, golden syrup, high-fructose corn syrup, honey, agave nectar, malt syrup, maple syrup, oat syrup, rice bran syrup, rice syrup, and dates syrup.

Other sugars: barley malt, molasses, cane juice crystals, lactose, corn sweetener, crystalline fructose, dextran, malt powder, ethyl maltol, fructose, fruit juice concentrate, galactose, glucose, disaccharides, maltodextrin, and maltose. [12]

Learn more:

Prioritize Whole Foods

Remember that natural whole foods don’t need an ingredient label because they consist of only one ingredient: the food itself.

Apples, pears, carrots, potatoes, beans, mushrooms, walnuts, rice, flour, fish, chicken, pepper, coffee. These are just a very few examples for one-ingredient foods. Of course, not all apples or chicken are equal. Quality matters also in case of whole foods. At least, you don’t have to bother reading an ingredients list for them.

As a rule of thumb, building your meals predominantly starting from whole foods that are made of just one, or a short list of whole ingredients is the healthiest practice.

By understanding the ingredients list, you can make informed choices about the foods you consume.

Choose products with whole foods as the main ingredients. Limit added sugars, salt and processed ingredients, and prioritize nutrient-rich components.

Remember, the food you eat is the sum of its ingredients. By making conscious choices, you can nourish your body with wholesome, nutritious foods.

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3. Understand the Nutrition Facts and Serving Sizes

In the nutrition facts label you can find information about calories and various nutrients contained in the product

In the nutrition facts label you can find information about calories and various nutrients contained in the product. There are typically carbs, fats and proteins.

The information you can find in the nutrition facts varies depending on the product itself and on the regulations in country were you live.

In some countries nutrition facts are available both per “serving size” and per 100g of product.

Watch Out For Serving Sizes

If possible, ignore the serving sizes information and focus only on the calories and nutrients information per 100g. This allows you to have a standard quantity to compare how nutrients vary across products in the same category.

For example, if you want to purchase breakfast cereals, you can compare nutrition facts of different cereals looking at these per 100g of product. In this way, you can for example spot which product contains less sugars and more fiber.

Serving sizes listed on packaging are often deceptively small and don’t reflect how much you’re likely to consume. In these cases, manufacturers list a much smaller amount than what most people consume in one setting. This practice can significantly affect our perception of the product’s nutritional value.

By listing a smaller serving size, manufacturers can make the product appear to be lower in calories, fat, or sugar.

Don’t Be Mislead By Unrealistic Serving Sizes

Here are some example of unrealistic serving sizes you can find on food packages:

  • The nutrition label of a pack of breakfast cookies presents a serving size of 1 or 2 cookies, when in reality people normally eat many more.
  • A can of soda claims to include two servings, even though most people consume the entire can in one sitting, if not more.
  • A serving size of a bag of chips may be about 15 chips (28g), but many people would easily eat the entire bag of 75g.
  • A serving of ice cream may be about ¼ cup (60ml), but most people would eat at least twice that amount. This can make it seem like the ice cream is lower in calories and fat than it actually is.

In summary, it’s best to ignore the portion size indicated in the nutrition facts labels and focus only on the nutrients per 100g. This will give you a more accurate idea of the nutritional content of the product.

Learn How To Read The Nutrition Facts Information

In synergy with the ingredients list, the nutrition facts can help you select the best product within the same category of food.

For example, if you want to buy breakfast cereals, you can compare nutrition facts of products ranging from whole-meal oat flakes, to granola, and other cereal flakes.

The nutrition facts label typically offers the following information.

NutrientHow to read it
CaloriesThis gives you an idea about which product is more or less caloric.
CarbohydratesTypically you can find information on total carbs, and on how much of these carbs is sugar. Sometimes you can also find information about dietary fiber in this section. In fact, fiber is a type of carbs.
In general, the less sugar and more fiber, the better.
ProteinsOn this line you can find information about the amount of proteins.
Often, a higher percentage of proteins signals a more nutrition food.
FatTypically you can find here information on the total amount of fat, and how much of this is saturated fat and trans fat. Sometimes you can also find the amount of polyunsaturated, monounsaturated, Omega 3 and Omega 6 fats.
As a rule of thumb, saturated fat should be limited in favor of eating more polyunsaturated, monounsaturated, and Omega 3 fats.
SodiumTypically, nutrition labels also report the amount of sodium.
Better to chose products with the least amount of sodium.
Other nutrientsIn some cases, nutrition labels offer information about other nutrients. These may include cholesterol, vitamins, minerals, probiotic bacteria, and more.
Typical Nutrition Facts Information

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Put Nutrition Facts In Perspective

When making purchasing decisions based on nutrition facts, make sure you look at the data from the right angle.

For foods that you eat in very small amounts, what counts most is the ingredients list rather than the nutrition facts.

One example is soy sauce. If you want to buy soy sauce, you will notice that all of them have a very high content of salt (sodium). However, what counts is not just the percentage of sodium the various products contain, but also the amount of product that you are going to eat.

Soy sauce is a condiment that can give a lot of flavor also in minimal quantities. So if you just have a bit of it to boost the flavor of your meal, then you will effectively just eat a very small amount of sodium, even if soy sauce contains a high percentage of it.

So, when deciding which soy sauce to buy, focus more on the ingredients list. In this case, go for the shorter ingredients list without chemical ingredients.

If you want to buy a jar of honey or jam, then you will notice the large amount of sugar they contain. Again, what counts is not the percentage of sugar, but rather how much honey or jam you eat. Also in this case it is best to focus more on the list of ingredients, for example looking for the jam with more fruit and less added sugars, than on the nutrition facts.

Conclusions

Reading the labels of the food you buy and eat is probably the single most important starting step for building healthy eating foundations. Make sure you make it an habit.

Once you have done it for a while, you will be able to optimize your grocery shopping without reading all labels all times.

Reading food labels is particularly useful when comparing products within the same food category and decide which one if the best option for your health.

When doing so, ignore the front-package claims and go straight to the ingredients list first, and then to the nutrition facts labels.

References

[1] Regulating health claims on food labels using nutrient profiling: what will the proposed standard mean in the Australian supermarket? – PubMed (nih.gov)

[2] The effects of nutrition labeling on consumer food choice: a psychological experiment and computational model – PubMed (nih.gov)

[3] Nutrition labels on pre-packaged foods: a systematic review – PubMed (nih.gov)

[4] The science on front-of-package food labels – PubMed (nih.gov)

[5] CFR – Code of Federal Regulations Title 21 (fda.gov)

[6] The safety evaluation of food flavouring substances: the role of metabolic studies – PMC (nih.gov)

[7] Food-Induced Anaphylaxis: Role of Hidden Allergens and Cofactors – PMC (nih.gov)

[8] Natural Flavors: Should You Eat Them? (healthline.com)

[9] 25% Less Sodium Cream of Mushroom Soup – Campbell Soup Company

[10] Trans-Fat-Free Food: What’s the Truth? (webmd.com)

[11] Natural Preservatives: Are They Better Than Artificial Preservatives? (webmd.com)

[12] How to Read Food Labels Without Being Tricked (healthline.com)

[13] Low-Calorie and Artificial Sweeteners | The Nutrition Source | Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health

[14] The truth about fats: the good, the bad, and the in-between – Harvard Health

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Learn how to read food labels and make better decisions