How Healthy People Decode Labels

All natural? No additives? Our experts help you separate the hype from the reality in the grocery aisle.

person looking at food container

When nutritionist Kathie Swift shops for food, she’s not particularly interested in whether or not the product is labeled low-fat, low-cholesterol or sugar-free. And all those “wholesome,” “heart-healthy” and “good for you” claims on the front of the packages? Swift doesn’t give them a second glance. She is too busy scanning the package for one thing: the ingredients list.

“If the ingredients themselves don’t meet the mark of nutritional excellence, there’s really no need to study even the numbers,” she says. And if the ingredients do meet the mark of nutritional excellence? Well, if they’re whole-food ingredients and there aren’t too many to count at a glance, the numbers probably don’t matter much then, either.

Developing this kind of no-nonsense label savvy is essential for navigating today’s grocery-store environments, where many of the more than 45,000 products make healthy claims on their packaging. “You have to ignore the seduction on the front of boxes,” Swift says.

Since the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) relaxed its label standards in 2003, food manufacturers have plastered their products with all kinds of health claims. Sunny yellow margarine tubs now purport to “maintain a healthy heart” — because they contain tiny amounts of vitamin E. Drinks formulated to contain added vitamin A, antioxidants and other nutrients claim they support immune function — even though they are loaded with sugar. And cereals boast that their “whole grain” goodness lowers risk of cancer, stroke and heart disease — despite the fact that refined flours play a much larger role in their makeup.

No surprise, then, that a recent FDA survey of nearly 2,000 people found that Americans are confused by food-packaging health claims. Fortunately, it is possible to cut through the marketing hype if you know what to look for. Experience Life recruited Swift and four other experts to explain the label-deconstructing strategies they employ:

Kathie Swift, MS, RD, codirector of the Food as Medicine program at The Center for Mind-Body Medicine and nutrition chair at the Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health.

Laryn Callaway, ND, a naturopathic doctor in Scottsdale, Ariz., and the CEO of Organic Bistro, a producer of low-sodium, low-glycemic frozen meals

Lisa Drayer, RD, a dietitian, health reporter and the author of The Beauty Diet: Looking Great Has Never Been So Delicious (McGraw-Hill, 2008)

Ann Louise Gittleman, PhD, CNS, nutritionist and author of The Gut Flush Plan: The Breakthrough Cleansing Program to Rid Your Body of the Toxins That Make You Sick, Tired and Bloated (Avery, 2008)

Kimberly Lord Stewart, an award-winning health reporter and author of Eating Between the Lines: The Supermarket Shopper’s Guide to the Truth Behind Food Labels (St. Martin’s Griffin, 2007)

Here are some of the ways these savvy shoppers get the information they need to make healthy food choices:

Seek Simplicity

“Many food manufacturers are masters of trickery,” says Gittleman. “Think of yourself as a food detective to get the information you need for yourself and your family.” That means you have to avoid getting distracted by red herrings and look to the ingredients list for meaningful facts.

This is where you’ll find the basic components of the product, listed in descending order from most prevalent to least. In general, the more ingredients you see, the less likely this is to be an entirely healthy product. That’s because the more highly processed a food product is, the more stabilizers, extenders, flavors, colors and texturizers it will require to look and taste edible.

When Drayer picks up an unfamiliar package of food, she wants only real whole foods on the ingredients list: “beans,” “oysters,” or “tomatoes,” for example. And she’s looking for brevity, too. “Unless it’s frozen lasagna with a million spices, I want to see five or six ingredients,” she says. “More than that, and I don’t bother to read it.”

One good way to cut to the chase: If it’s a lengthy list, look at the top first, then do a detailed read at the very bottom. If you don’t spy any deal-breakers in either of these places (refined flours and sugars often show up at the top; artificial flavors and preservatives at the bottom), it’s worth reading on to see whether you’ve found a truly wholesome product — or if something nasty (like hydrogenated oil) has been sandwiched in the middle.

Avoid Food Additives

Gittleman has spent a good chunk of her professional life warning people about the dangers of food additives such as sodium benzoate, which has been shown to damage mitochondrial DNA, or potassium bromate (sold as bromated vegetable oil), a possible human carcinogen that’s been banned in many countries (though not in the United States). She also avoids trans fats (sold as hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated vegetable oil), high-fructose corn syrup, artificial colors (sold as Blue 1, Blue 2, Green 3, Orange B, Red 3, Red 40, Yellow 5 and Yellow 6), butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA), butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT), monosodium glutamate (sold as autolyzed yeast extract, hydrolyzed vegetable protein, yeast extract, natural flavoring, spices, soy extract, protein isolate, disodium inosinate and disodium guanylate), sulfites (sold as sodium sulfite, sodium bisulfate, potassium bisulfate, sodium metabisulfite and potassium metabisulfite), nitrates (sold as sodium nitrate or sodium nitrite) and sodium benzoate (sold as benzoic acid).

Watch for Real Whole Grains

According to Callaway, if a package of food has unprocessed whole grains like brown rice or whole-kernel rye, its ingredients list will specify that. “If, on the other hand, a product has a highly processed grain like white rice in it, the ingredients list will simply say ‘rice,’” she says.

The shift in wording is barely noticeable, but the nutritional difference is huge: When a grain is highly refined — as in the case of “enriched wheat flour” or just plain “rice” — both the bran and the germ are stripped away, along with many essential vitamins and minerals.

As noted, be aware that many products that trumpet “whole grains” or even a “Whole Grains” stamp on the front of the package also contain a large quantity of processed grains (you’ll need to read the ingredients list on the back or side to get a sense of proportion).

Check the Fiber and Sodium

Once you’ve scanned the ingredients list, move up to the Nutrition Facts panel. Callaway focuses on the dietary fiber, because “it immediately tells me something about the quality of what I’m buying. If there’s some measure of real fruit, real vegetables, real nuts or real whole grains, the fiber is going to be higher,” she says, noting that 3 grams is a good amount for a serving of crackers, and 6 grams is a good amount for a frozen meal. (Be cautious, Callaway adds, of garbage food with a lot of added fiber.) Next, she checks the sodium content to get a sense of how much the food has been processed. “If a product contains more than 500 milligrams of sodium per serving, then I know it’s probably pretty flavorless and had to be masked with sodium to make it taste palatable.”

Double Check Serving Size

Another point of interest on the Nutrition Facts panel: the serving size and number of servings per package. Food manufacturers have the liberty of setting their own serving sizes, and they often define them as artificially small as a way of suppressing the perceived number of calories (and grams of carbs and fats) per serving. “I’ve seen single muffins labeled as containing three servings. I mean, really — who eats a third of a muffin?” says Stewart.

While none of our experts is particularly interested in counting calories, they all agree that if a packaged-food manufacturer goes to the trouble of inventing unrealistic serving sizes purely to hold down calorie-per-serving counts, it’s probably not a great product (or a calorically worthwhile product) to begin with.

Ultimately, there’s no magic number or formula that adds up to “yes, eat this,” or “no, don’t eat this,” says Callaway. “All the bits of information taken together — the number and kind of ingredients, the amount of sodium, the serving size — add up to a yes or a no,” she says.

Indeed, the healthiest foods in the grocery store — the fresh fruits and vegetables — offer little or no nutrition information, in part because they have little or no packaging on which to display it. That simple fact can put produce at a real disadvantage among consumers who are counting on labels to tell the whole story about a given food product’s merits: They simply aren’t blaring all the “heart healthy,” “brain healthy,” “cholesterol-lowering” and “low-calorie” claims they could easily justify.

Meanwhile, many packaged foods are labeled not just misleadingly, but inadequately, says Swift. “If I could change food labels for the better, I’d add place-of-origin information, the amount of omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids, a differentiation between natural and added sugars, and a bar chart illustrating key nutrients, including phytonutrients — especially flavonoids and polyphenols.”

As it stands now, consumers have to work with what food manufacturers are required to divulge. The good news, says Callaway, is that there are some wonderful packaged-food options at the grocery store, such as whole-kernal rye breads, canned beans and nut butters. But to pick the winners you have to be prepared to read some fine print — and to ignore a lot of fancy packaging come-ons.

Alyssa Ford is a Minneapolis-based writer and editor.

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