How to Navigate Food Labels Without Getting Tricked

Grocery store

When you’re trying to be mindful of your diet, one of the things you try to do more of is pay close attention to food packaging and nutrition labels to make sure that you’re staying on top of the things that you’re putting in your body. But being mindful of nutrition information is only important if you actually know what you’re doing, or what you’re looking for, when looking at a label. To help you navigate the often complicated waters of label deciphering, we’ve rounded up a few of the most common mistakes people make when reading food packaging so that you can be sure to avoid them.

You’re not reading the ingredient list. 

It’s important to know about the calories and breakdown of nutrients in your food, yes, but that doesn’t really give you the full picture. The only way to get a thorough idea of what you’re putting in your body is to pay as much attention to the ingredient list as you do the rest of the label. “So many people are only concerned with the total calories or amount of total fat,” says Jeanette Kimszal, registered dietitian and nutritionist. “They often forget to look at what is actually in a product. There could be a low-calorie or low-fat product but it could be filled with a ton of sugar and preservatives. The ingredients are just as important, especially because they are listed by weight. So if you see sugar as one of the first few ingredients it means that there it is made up of mostly sugar.”

You’re drawn to “gluten-free.”

While gluten-free is an important label for people who have a serious gluten allergy, a lot of people make the mistake of thinking that gluten-free is just flat out synonymous with healthy, which just isn’t the case. “Gluten-free is a meaningless label to anyone who doesn’t have celiac disease or a known intolerance to gluten,” says nutrition coach and certified strength & conditioning specialist, Ivana Chapman. “In many cases, these foods aren’t a healthy choice for regular consumption.”

You’re confusing “natural” or “organic” with “healthy.”

There are a number of different terms that you might be seeing on the front of different food packages that you’re mistakingly understanding to mean “healthy” when in fact that really have no connection. A couple of the biggest culprits include natural and organic. “Natural is a completely meaningless term,” says Chapman. “Being natural doesn’t mean that something is good for you. Organic processed foods like cookies, granola bars, cereal, and muffins aren’t necessarily any better for you than regular processed food. It’s just processed junk food that perhaps has a little less of certain chemicals.”

You’re misunderstanding the term “whole grain.”

Another term you might be understanding incorrectly? Whole grain.”There are a lot of products that will say ‘whole grain’ on the front but then contain ingredients like ‘enriched wheat flour’ or  ‘wheat flour,'” says Jeanette Kimszal. “Enriched means that, during processing, all the nutrients in the whole grain were stripped out and synthetic vitamins were added back to replace what was taken out during processing. Wheat flour is another ingredient that is confused as whole wheat. Wheat flour does not contain the nutrients that are found in whole wheat and like enriched wheat, it is stripped of its nutrients. To make sure that the foods you’re eating really are whole grains, you want to look for a product that has the words whole wheat or unbleached whole wheat.”

You’re skipping over the serving information.

You might be a pro at knowing what to look for when it comes to everything from ingredients to sugar, carb, and fat content, but that all means nothing if your glazing over the serving size. “Most often, when I ask patients to tell me what they look for on a
nutrition label, I hear calories or carbohydrates,” says Alyssa Cohen, registered dietitian and certified personal trainer. “However, all of those numbers mean nothing if you don’t have the proper context, so looking at the actual serving size and servings per container are the first numbers you should be looking at so that you have an idea of what those other numbers are telling you.”