When you’re out food shopping are you a confident label reader, or not really sure what you should be looking for? No worries, I can make you into that confident label reader (and soon to be healthier person). We’ll break down those confusing and sometimes daunting labels one piece at a time.

After all, I think good label reading is one of the first things to master in your quest to health. It’s important to know what you fuel your body with.

Food Label

Okay, take this nutrition label for example. Do you know where to start or what to look out for? What should you aim for? All of those fats and vitamins… what do they all mean? It can be overwhelming if you don’t know where to start. Just take a deep breath and lets break it down.

  1. Start with this section. It tells you the single serving size (in two types of measurements), number of servings per container, calories per serving, and the amount of calories per serving that are coming from fat.
  2. The main part of the chart/label has two columns: amount per serving, and the % daily value. The left side of the chart will tell you the info for only one serving, while the right (% daily value) will tell you the % of the ingredient that you’re getting if you were consuming a 2000 calorie/day diet. Make sense?
  3. Fats, cholesterol, and sodium: you’ll want to be mindful of these amounts, primarily how much saturated, trans fat, and cholesterol you’re getting. Generally, the lower these numbers, the better. Also, try to look for low sodium options.
  4. Carbohydrates, fiber, sugar, and protein: carbs are what our body converts to glucose for fuel, so not too much to worry about here. The dietary fiber is important and needed in our diet, so try to choose foods that are higher in fiber, but low in sugar. Avoid consuming too much sugar and aim for foods rich in fiber and protein. They’ll keep you feeling fuller longer and help you avoid empty calorie junk foods.
  5. The middle section is the percent daily value of vitamins and omega fatty acids, which are very good for you.
  6. The bottom section of the table is the suggested calorie breakdown shown here for a 2000 and a 2500 calorie/day diet. It just helps to put things in perspective.

Now that you’ve gotten the low-down on the nutrition facts label and are a pro, let’s turn our sights on to the other part of the label of your favorite foods – the ingredients.

Ingredients Label

This label is a sample from a peanut butter jar. As you can see, the very first ingredient listed is peanuts. You may be wondering why I state the obvious, but it’s important. Manufacturers list the ingredients in the order of the amount they appear in the product. Obviously, since we’re talking about peanut butter here, peanuts SHOULD be the very first and main ingredient. You can also see that no, they are not the only ingredient in this peanut butter. It contains flax at the next highest amount, then whey protein, natural sweetener, canola oil, and maple extract as the very last, least concentrated ingredient in the product.

Now that you know how the ingredients are arranged, you need to be a food detective and read the ingredients thoroughly. Using your eyes comb through each word in search of offending ingredients, such as, sugar as the first or second ingredient, and/or hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oils. Try to avoid the afore-mentioned as much as possible, especially the partially hydrogenated oils, which usually lead to the inclusion of trans fats. If you spy “hydrogenated” (or “partially”) on the label try to find a better option. Many peanut butters and other products use hydrogenated oil to prevent separation and prolong shelf life. As you can see from the example above, they aren’t all that way. You can still be a savvy shopper and find options that are healthier.

One last thing, the shorter the ingredients list, the better. Consuming real whole foods is always a healthier way to go rather eating too many over-processed, hard-to-pronounce ingredients any day.

I hope that knowing the low-down on these nutrition and ingredient labels will make you a savvy, confident supermarket warrior next time you visit the grocery store. Remember, knowledge is power and you have the power to make healthier food choices.