A Complete Guide to Reading and Understanding Nutrition & Ingredient Labels
Before you purchase a food item, it can be beneficial to know what it contains. Does the ingredient list contain substances that you want to put into your body, or is it full of ingredients you’d rather avoid? You’ll never know unless you check, and there are some helpful tips to keep in mind while reading the label.
Before you jump into the ingredient list, it can be beneficial to read the Nutrition Facts label. In particular, pay attention to the serving size and servings per container. Often, the numbers you see on the label don’t correlate with eating the entire bag, box, carton, etc., even when the container is small. Also be sure to check out the nutrients section, since this will tell you the total carbohydrates, sugars, and added sugars (plus many other relevant nutrients).
How the Nutrition Facts Help You Translate the Ingredients
Using the Nutrition Facts, you can get more context for the ingredients you’ll find on the ingredient list. Serving size, servings per container, and grams of sugars are particularly helpful when comparing different foods. Don’t compare apples to oranges – different serving sizes may mean the amount of sugar requires a little calculation before comparison.
Where Will You Find the Ingredient List?
The ingredient list may be listed before or after the nutrition label, with most manufacturers including it at the bottom of the nutrition label. The only true requirement is that it is placed on the same panel as the name and address of the manufacturer.
Listed in Order of Predominance by Weight
The main regulation on the ingredient list is that the list must include all contained ingredients in descending order of predominance by weight. This means that each individual ingredient must be listed, and the ingredients that weigh the most must be listed first (and the included ingredient weighing the least would be listed last).
Where Things Get Tricky
While the regulations on food labels are pretty straightforward, manufacturers can find loopholes and occasionally things can get a little tricky. For example, there are ways around listing every single ingredient. Some things can just be labeled as “spices,” “flavors,” “artificial coloring,” etc. Additionally, if an ingredient is considered “incidental,” then it doesn’t have to be declared on the label. An ingredient that is present in 2% (or less) by weight isn’t subject to the same regulations and instead may be listed at the end or marked with a symbol.
- While these quantities may be small, even tiny amounts of hidden sugars or other unwanted ingredients can add up if eaten frequently.
- Watch for numbers that don’t add up. If it says it contains 0 sugars, 0 carbs, 0 proteins, and 0 fats, but then still has calories listed (this happens with certain low-calorie candies, for example), it means that it does contain sugar but just in small amounts.
Another trick that you’ll see is less-than-straightforward names used for sugar, and you might not catch it unless you familiarize yourself with the alternative names used. Taking things a step further, sometimes manufacturers will use multiple types of sugar, which decreases the weight of each individual sugar used, putting them further down on the ingredient list and making them seem less significant than they really are.
Knowledge is Power
At the end of the day, having more knowledge about the foods you consume gives you more power to control your health. When buying foods, read the label, do a little inner translating, and ignore the health claims on the front. Health claims such as “diet,” “natural,” or “low-fat,” may still be present on products that are loaded with sugar.