By Neha Shah, MD

One of the more confusing and misleading aspects of trying to get healthier is decoding the information on nutrition labels. We will review the basics of nutrition labels and the pitfalls to avoid when picking out items at the grocery store.

One of the best tips for making healthier choices is to avoid the claims on the front of the packaging!! Many companies have found methods to advertise foods that suggest “healthy,” but it may not always be the case. Far and away, the best place to look is the ingredients list. Product ingredients are listed in order of quantity from highest to lowest. Many times, packaging may market “made with natural foods” but upon review of the ingredients list, you may not see many natural ingredients.

Focus on choosing foods that have whole (recognizable) ingredients as the first three items in the list. However, if the ingredients list lasts longer than three lines, that’s an indicator that the food may be more processed than you would want.

After the ingredients, look at serving sizes. Many items that are marketed as single serving may be two or four servings. Frozen dinners are notorious for this. If you do nothing else, start reviewing the serving size and the number of servings per container.

Once you have determined serving size, the next place to draw your attention is the number of calories in the serving size. Remember the frozen dinner example — eating that one entire diner adds substantially more calories than the package may have alluded to. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) uses the guideline of 2,000 daily calories as a general guide on packages. In actuality, your daily caloric requirements vary widely based on age, weight, sex, activity level, and muscle mass. Consider your own specific caloric needs when making decisions.

After determining serving size and calorie per serving, the next section of the nutrition label is the nutrients. Typically, this is separated into total fat, total carbohydrates, and protein — macronutrients. The cholesterol, sodium, and added sugar levels can give a good indicator into how processed a food is. This section is especially helpful when trying to interpret the overall nutritional value of a food item.

Next to the nutrients, the nutrition label includes percent of daily value in a serving of a food. As a rule of thumb, look for foods that are higher in dietary fiber, vitamin D, calcium, iron, and potassium. Remember, these percentages are based on the standard 2,000 calories per day, and you may need more or less of something based on your goals.

Overall, the marketing of packaged food and nutrition labels can be riddled with pitfalls and misleading claims. Use this guide to have the confidence when evaluating food labels:

Most common misleading nutrition claims

Natural: The product, at any point during processing, used something natural substance, such as rice or bananas. It does not determine the end processing of the product.

Multigrain: This simply means more than one grain was used. Many high-sugar breakfast cereals are marketed as multigrain to mislead the consumer. Instead focus on whole-grain.

Light: These products are typically more processed to reduce the calories or fat. Many times, these products are diluted with water or have additional added sugars for taste.

No added sugar: Many times, these products incorporate sugar substitutes or other chemical alternative sweeteners.

Overall, the world of nutrition and nutrition labels can be riddled with pitfalls and marketing claims. But with this information, you can have the confidence in evaluating food labels. Remember with all things health and wellness, progress over perfection and consistency over motivation.

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