Reading Food Packages and Nutrition Labels: Four Tips for Savvy Shopping

Supermarket.

While about two-thirds of Americans might use the Nutrition Facts panel at least some of the time, most people have only a limited understanding of what it means. Use this guide to separate fact from fiction at the grocery store.

1. Focus on foods without labels.

Let’s get this out of the way right now: Our goal is not to eat a lot of foods that require packaging or labels.

Picture your refrigerator full of green kale, yellow lemons, red apples, and a rainbow array of fresh fruits and vegetables, and your pantry brimming with whole grains and red, yellow, orange, black, white, and brown legumes, potatoes, sweet potatoes, and a sampling of nuts and seeds.

Most of these items can be purchased without packaging (unless the package just functions to hold a single ingredient, like raisins or beans), because they are intact, whole natural foods … and we want these to comprise the bulk of our diet. However, there are a variety of prepared and lightly processed foods that make eating a whole food, plant-based diet a lot easier to maintain—for example, whole-grain products like crackers, wraps, and pizza crusts; canned products like beans, tomato paste, and tomato sauce; boxed products like plant milks, and of course frozen fruits and vegetables.

2. Don’t believe anything you read on the front of a package.

Food packages tend to be plastered with bold, exciting, and mostly meaningless, unregulated assertions. Rule number one, as registered dietitian Jeff Novick likes to say, is “don’t believe anything you read on the front of a package.” In other words, be wary of deceptive marketing hype that makes junk foods appear healthy.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is the regulatory body that sets the standards for health claims on food packages and labels. However, the FDA’s ability to regulate unfounded claims is severely limited, both legally and practically, due to limited resources for investigation and enforcement.

(For those of you who want a more detailed explanation of food packing claims, see my breakdown in the references section below.)

3. Read the ingredient list.

Reading the ingredient list is key. Aim for shorter ingredient lists with recognizable ingredients, and watch out for words ending “ose.” That signifies the substance is a sugar. Ingredients are listed in order of descending volume, so if you see wheat flour first followed by glucose, high-fructose corn syrup, and maltose, it’s likely the total sugar from those three (by weight) adds up to more than the amount of flour.

In addition, don’t fall for any promises that a flour is made from whole grains unless the ingredient listed is “100% whole wheat flour” or “100% whole grain spelt flour,” or the like.

4. Check the Nutrition Facts panel.

Now you can move on to the Nutrition Facts panel—something to always check! Here’s an overview of what’s important:

Fat

Take a look at the total calories and the calories from fat. Aim for the fat calories to be 15% of total calories or less (so that’s fat calories/total calories < 0.15). To figure out what percentage of calories come from fat, divide the calories from fat by the total calories per serving and multiply the result by 100. Doing this calculation will steer you towards foods that have little to no added fats and oils.

nutritional info labelCholesterol

Next, note the cholesterol. Plant foods don’t contain cholesterol, so if you see anything greater than “0” next to cholesterol, that’s a clue to reread the ingredient list and check for hidden animal products.

Sodium

The USDA has set 2,300 mg as the upper safe limit. If you eat only meals like the ones on our recipe pages, with almost no added salt, you’ll still easily get adequate sodium from whole plant foods. So if you eat any packaged or prepared foods, keeping to the 2,300 mg limit (or better yet, 1,500 mg) is possible only by eating foods that contain very little to no added sodium. Jeff Novick’s handy trick is to make sure the milligrams of sodium don’t exceed the calories per serving.

Sugar

Finally, take a look at the sugars. We’d love to see the Nutrition Facts panel revised to include a separate line for “added sugars,” but for now we see only total sugars. Remember that whole plant foods will contain some naturally occurring sugar, but if the total sugars number is approaching the total carbohydrates, that’s another clue to reread the ingredient list.

What should you not worry about? Don’t worry about the protein! If you eat a whole-food, plant-based diet, you will naturally get all the protein you need, without having to think about it. Remember, the fewer packaged/labeled foods you eat the better, but if you follow these simple guidelines and find your go-to brands, it will make healthy eating a whole lot easier.

The Bottom Line

When buying packaged foods, don’t pay attention to words like natural, wholesome,and optimal—they don’t mean anything. Instead, focus on reading the ingredients list and the nutrition panel. And just remember that the more you practice deciphering product packaging, the easier smart shopping will be.

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