What’s for dinner? Your best bet, in almost every case, is to stick to whole foods that don’t require a label. But sometimes, you might be short on time and need something quick and convenient to add to the dinner table. Not all packaged foods are unhealthy. Some, such as frozen vegetables without added sauces, are minimally processed and contain only one or two ingredients, vegetables, and, maybe, a little salt. Their processing comprises chopping and freezing. In fact, studies show that frozen vegetables may keep more of their nutrition because manufacturers freeze them right after harvest when they contain the most nutrients. The freezing process prevents further loss of nutrients.
As with any packaged product, read the label. It’s especially important to read food labels carefully. Too often, people look only at the “marketing speak” on the front of the package and judge a food based on that. However, front of the package information can be deceptive. Labels often convey a message by including words such as “natural” or “superfood,” giving the impression that the item is a healthy choice. However, these words are more marketing speak than nutritional terms. To get the full story, here’s what you should look for on a food label.
The data on the back top of a food label includes information about calories and the breakdown of the nutritional content of a product. Under the nutritional information, you’ll find the total calories per serving and the breakdown of the percentage of each macronutrient, carbohydrates, protein, and fat. You’ll also see a rundown of the type of fat, such as saturated, monounsaturated, and polyunsaturated.
Beneath the information about macronutrients is data on micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) along with the percent of the daily value they fulfill. For example, if the amount of calcium in a product is 320 milligrams and it supplies 25% of the daily value, you would need to consume 4 servings to get the recommended daily intake. However, you’ll likely also get calcium from other sources too. If a product has a %DV of 20% or greater, it’s usually a good source of a nutrient or macronutrient. If it’s 5% or less, it’s not a good source.
Always take a close look at the sugar content of a product. Food labels now list total sugars, including natural sugars in a food product. Underneath, they list added sugars, those added to the product during processing. These include all caloric sweeteners, not just sugar. For example, honey would be included under added sugars.
When you look at an ingredient list, the ingredients in the product are listed in order from most to least. The ingredient that makes up the highest proportion of the product’s weight are listed first, and other ingredients will follow in sequence based on how much is in the product by weight. Foods that contain a long list of ingredients are often highly processed and should make you think twice about buying the product.
Servings Per Container
Always look at the servings size and the number of servings on the nutritional label too. It’s easy to get fooled! For example, a candy bar that, at first glance, look like a single serving may be two servings when you look at the servings per container. If it’s actually two servings, you’re getting double the calories and twice the nutrients if you eat the whole bar.
Just beneath the ingredient list, you should see a line that says whether the product contains allergens. For example, it may say “contains milk and wheat, corresponding to two of the more common allergens. Manufacturers must list whether a product contains one or more of the most common allergens, including soybeans, peanuts, wheat, shellfish, tree nuts, eggs, milk, and fish. If you’re allergic to shellfish, also check the ingredient list as certain types of shellfish don’t have to be listed under the “contains” section.
You may also see “may contain” warnings on food labels. This shows that a product could be contaminated with an allergen. It’s hard to draw conclusions though, since the product may or may not contain the allergen in question. If you have a food allergy, it’s best to avoid products that list the allergen you react to under this designation, since you can’t say with certainty that it’s safe.
Use by Date and Best Before Dates
The use by date tells you how long it’s safe to keep a product. Perishable products contain a “use by” date so you’ll know when to toss the product. For safety reasons, consume food before its use-by date and don’t use it after that time, even if still smells unspoiled. In contrast, “best before” dates refer to food quality. The manufacturer recommends using the product by that date for best taste and quality. Certain ingredients in a product may degrade over time and make it less appealing. This doesn’t mean the product is no longer safe to consume after that date. If you stored the product properly and it still has a good taste and aroma, you can consume a product after the best before date, but not after the use-by date.
Another term you might see on a food product is “sell by.” This tells grocery stores how long to leave a product on display and refers to quality. Even if you buy a product on its sell-by date, the product may retain its quality for significantly longer. So, if you have a product that’s past its sell-by date, you don’t have to toss it as long as it still smells and tastes appealing.
The Bottom Line
Now you know what to look for on a food label and can make smarter choices. Still, the smartest approach is to stick with whole foods that require no labels. Think outside of the package when you’re shopping, and you’ll make smarter decisions and enjoy better health.
- American Academy of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology. “FOOD LABELS: READ IT BEFORE YOU EAT IT!”
- S. Food and Drug Administration. “How to Understand and Use the Nutrition Facts Label”
- com. “Do Food Expiration Dates Really Matter?”
- org. “Understanding Food Nutrition Labels”