Does a Food Label Look Like a Foreign Language? Learn How to Read Them!

By Kristen Mccaffrey on

Every day we are faced with a nutrition label. Even if we try whole heartedly to avoid packaged goods, some packaged goods are actually out there for convenience AND health. I know, it’s hard to believe! I always find myself having to tell clients which brands are great for their health and which to steer clear from, but the problem with brand pushing is that the food industry is changing and evolving at such a rapid rate it’s hard to keep up unless you live in a grocery store. The best solution was to empower my clients (and now you as well) to read those nutrition labels for themselves to make smart decisions! I won't be going over specific ingredients to eat or avoid today, but this is a good start.

There are two parts to a nutrition label – the numbers and the ingredients. It’s common to think that the “nutrition” comes from the numerical label as that’s what the label is called, but the truth is, without the ingredients, the numbers are just numbers. It’s important to look what the ingredients are to see where the nutrition is coming from. For example, a label that indicates 10g of fat could be from refined and hydrogenated oils, or it could be from nuts and seeds. The latter will actually supply nutrition, whereas the refined oils don’t, so where the 10g of fat is coming from makes a bigger difference than the actual grams of fat listed since they will interact and contribute to your body in completely different ways. Let's break down the pieces of the numerical label, and why it always comes back to looking at the ingredients over the numbers.

The Calories

This is the amount of energy the food is supposed to supply your body. We now know not all calories are created equal and it matters more the amount of nutrition you are receiving than the exact amount of calories - woot woot! They do matter, to an extent, so you can be aware of it but just make sure that every calorie counts and is as nutrient dense as possible so in this case we need to look at the ingredients.

The Fat Fat on labal example

For the actual Fat part of the label, when it says total fat, this is actually a mathematical equation of sorts because the total fat won’t tell you if it’s saturated or unsaturated. Right beneath (see picture) you will see saturated fat and sometimes you will see trans fat and polyunsaturated or monounsaturated fats listed as well. If you don’t and it’s only listing saturated, then minus the total fat from the saturated fat to get the unsaturated fat amount. Generally we want more unsaturated fats but we do need some saturated fa

The Carbs Carbs on label example

This part is also a mathematical equation. It includes starches, sugars and fibers. Fibers are excellent. Starches are healthy for you as long as they are whole grain, and often aren't labelled on the label so it's a process of elimination to determine how much. Sugars, as I've mentioned before, can have some nutrients specifically if it's from fresh or dried fruit, or natural sweeteners like honey or maple syrup. I try and emphasize to my clients to not just look at the total carbohydrates, but to ensure that the majority, or hopefully all, are coming from good sources. For example, something may seem high in carbohydrates but what if it had a whopping 10g of slow releasing energy in the form of fiber? and the rest from a high protein whole grain like quinoa? That's way more worth it to your body then a bowl of sugary and colored cereal with equal carbohydrates :)

The Percentages

I generally tell my clients to ignore the % on the label because this is only for people following exactly a 2,000 calorie diet, which doesn't reflect everyone, and just requires more math than necessary in a grocery store. It also doesn't reflect the appropriate ratio of foods you need because that also depends on activity level and health status so to determine this seek out a qualified health practitioner.

Sodium and Potassium

It's quite common to scan to the sodium amount to ensure it's low. We don't always want it to be too low, as we need it to survive, but we want to make sure it's from a great source like sea salt so it's full of a ton of minerals. Salt is used as a preservative so it will be higher in processed, frozen and fast foods. If you only use fresh produce and cook from scratch, adding sea salt will be necessary to make sure you get enough. If you're relying on pre-prepared food then you may need to watch your numbers and sources a bit more. In general, if you get 500mg/meal and a bit as snacks you'll reach a good amount of 1,500mg - 2,000mg. Remember that fruits and vegetables have natural sodium in them so you don't always have to salt food to get your amount. Recent guidelines changed to raise the daily intake from 1,500mg - 2,000mg. Potassium is the one we want more of, and often you don't need to monitor your amount if you eat fruits and vegetables in good quantity in the day, however, there are some conditions that require very high or low potassium intake in which case you would monitor it. Again, check out where the sources of these are coming from.


This piece of the label is generally redundant for those who don't have cholesterol issues. It should be looked at by those with cholesterol that's elevated, but, more importantly, they should be monitoring the type of fat they are consuming (ie. lower saturated fat especially refined, fried oils, and increase unsaturated fat) as this contributes to elevated cholesterol more than the consumption of dietary cholesterol. Harvard School of Public Health states:

Dietary cholesterole from harvard university smaller

So the next time you’re scouring the grocery store aisles and you see some new product out there I hope you now feel empowered with knowledge! Make sure you take into account the ingredients first THEN take a glance at the numerical if you want to. Don’t shy away from something that’s higher in good fat or calories to take the product that’s lower in fats or calories that are not from nutrient dense sources. Better yet, buy food that doesn't have labels on it - like a ton of root veggies, fruits, vegetables, and organic meats from farms :)

On Does a Food Label Look Like a Foreign Language? Learn How to Read Them!
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