How to Decipher Tricky Food Labels


How many times have you taken a personal vow to watch what you eat? If you consider checking out the number of calories on the food label “watching what you eat,” we hate to break it to you, but that’s an insufficient attempt.

Don’t feel too badly, though; consumers aren’t to blame. Food labels today are tougher to decipher than The DaVinci Code. But have no fear: we’ve done the research for you, and here we provide a quick guide to understanding food labels — just think of it as a Rosetta Stone: Food version.

Let us take a guided tour down a nutrition facts label (see above for reference). Most eyes stop at the calorie count, but just below to the right is the Percent Daily Value column. These percentages show how much of a certain nutrient you are getting by eating the product in question based on a daily serving of 2,000 calories. For example, if the packet says the item contains 25 percent sodium, this means that eating said food will fulfill 25 percent of the daily recommended sodium intake. But don’t feel pressured to get 100 percent of all things on a nutrition label — especially in the case of sodium and fat, which are better consumed in moderation.

We suggest dividing the nutrition label in half above the total carbohydrate row, and trying to limit your intake of everything that falls above — fats, cholesterol, and sodium — while increasing your consumption of dietary fiber, Vitamins A and C, calcium, and iron.

The list of ingredients is the trickiest part of the nutrition label. In the early years of imported food, the biggest obstacles were translating ingredients from other languages and adjusting to new ones altogether. Fortunately, we’re now easily able to decipher chemical compounds. Stay away from labels that claim foods to be “fat free” — it’s not healthy to consume these man-made concoctions that are usually infused with chemicals instead of fats or sugars. And if the ingredient name sounds like something you heard in chemistry class, do some research before you put it in your mouth.

One of the most common ingredients that people watch out for is sugar. Unfortunately, manufacturers have come up with more than one name for this common ingredient, making healthier lifestyles even more difficult to navigate. Anything with corn syrup, high-fructose corn syrup, fruit juice concentrate, artificial fruit flavor, dextrose, sucrose, honey, or maple syrup contains sugar, so avoid these ingredients if you’re trying to trim your intake.

If hanging out in the grocery store aisle deciphering food labels doesn’t seem like your cup of tea, try cooking meals at home using fresh ingredients. By filling at least half of your plate with veggies, you’ll be adding to your recommended nutrient intake for the day and will be well on your way to a healthier lifestyle. Natural ingredients are the gateway to better nutrition.

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