Six ways to not get tricked by food labels

Ever stand in the middle of a grocery store aisle, staring at the options, and wondering how in the world you’re supposed to know which brand of crackers among the dozens on the shelves is the healthiest?

You’re definitely not alone: Food packaging is often misleading to consumers, and knowing the real story requires a little bit of reading beyond face value. Fortunately the FDA has required all prepared foods provide detailed information on nutrition, and we’ve got six ways to digest this information, so you’re not fooled by food labels next time you go to the store.

  1. Flip the box: The front of the package is often the most misleading: Whole-grain, low cholesterol, fat free, gluten free? These words don’t equal healthy, and likely aren’t representative of the total nutritional value. These ”front-of-package” (FOP) labels are not closely monitored by the FDA, so food manufacturers often highlight what they want to. Pick up the package right away and flip to the side or the back to get the FDA-required and monitored nutrition facts.
  1. Zero in on the ingredient list: This is often under the nutrition facts, and is a good place to get a general idea of what’s in the food. Can you pronounce all of the ingredients? Try to avoid long, chemical-sounding ingredients (e.g., butylated hydroxytoluene (BHA). Check out the first three ingredients: Do you recognize them? Keep an eye out for the different ways sugar can present, usually anything ending in “-ose.”
  1. Check the total calories: The total calories should appear in bold, making it easy to spot. Does it seem like a reasonable portion of your recommended calories per day? For example, if your recommended intake is 1,600 calories, and the food in question is 700 calories for a snack, it may not be a great option. If your physician hasn’t provided recommended nutritional guidelines, these suggestions for adults age 51 and older are a good place to start.
  1. Spot the sugar: Sugar is typically divided into total sugars and added sugars. Try to avoid items that have a lot of added sugars. For example, a cup of yogurt may have 15 grams of sugar, including 10 grams of added sugar. This may prompt you to see if you can find one without any added sugar, or a smaller amount of added sugar.
  1. Do the math: You pick up a favorite cereal and the nutrition looks pretty good! But wait…the serving size is just ¼ cup. You know you typically have about a cup, so you have to take everything times four. Suddenly, it’s not so appealing. Check to see if there is a healthier alternative, or commit to a smaller portion size to still enjoy it.
  1. Go wild with whole foods: What if a food doesn’t have a label? You can look up any food in the USDA’s FoodData Central Search to find nutrition information, but generally, if it doesn’t have a label, it’s likely a “whole food,” and you’re safe to eat it—for example, whole fruits and veggies, and proteins like chicken and fish. Pro tip: This database also has over 373,000 branded foods, so it is a handy tool if you accidentally throw away the packaging before reading the label.

Next time you go to the store, you’ll be a food label expert! While it may take time to process which options are the best ones for you the first trip or two, soon you’ll establish go-to items that fit your nutritional needs and goals and eating healthy will be a breeze.