From serving sizes and sugars to protein and fat, food labels give us what we need to make informed buying decisions about the foods we eat. Unfortunately, they're not always easy to read—and in some cases they're downright confusing. Add the fact that most of today's manufacturers purposely label ingredients to make consumers believe they're eating something healthy when in reality they're not, and it can make your head spin.
So how do you read these labels to make informed decisions? Here are five tips to get you started on a path toward labeling enlightenment.
Read the ingredients
Manufacturers often use different terms when labeling ingredients. Take for example sugar, which can be listed as anything from evaporated cane juice to maltose to sucrose. (Check out for a list of 56—56!—different names for sugar.) This is not to say that you should memorize every ingredient. But if you have trouble pronouncing what you're reading, it's likely not as healthy as the label claims.
Aim for low numbers
On any given food label, the main ingredient will appear first and so on down the list. If the list is longer than a few lines—even on a smaller label—it's a sign to put it back on the shelf. A general rule of thumb is to look for items that only have five or fewer ingredients listed. Also pay close attention to serving sizes. Manufacturers tend to skew toward the smaller side, so you may need to double the serving size for a more accurate measure of calories, fat, and other nutritional information.
Avoid the artificial
Be wary of foods that list preservatives, additives, and artificial ingredients. Often, the package will say artificially flavored somewhere on it, though not necessarily in the actual ingredients list. Also be wary of anything that says natural flavors, as this could literally be anything. In most cases, these ingredients keep food fresh longer but do nothing to improve your health.
Know the terms
Light, multi-grain, low-fat, low-calorie, natural, organic. It's challenging to understand what all of these terms mean—and which are in fact the healthiest options. When in doubt, choose foods with no added sugar and ones that are organic. The rest are either misleading claims or alternative ways to state that the food has been unnaturally altered in some way.
Stick to whole foods
The next time you walk through the grocery store, take inventory of how much whole foods cost. In most cases, they are the same price if not less expensive than their packaged counterparts. And are largely much healthier, especially if they're organic. If it's a dip, side dish, or full meal, consider whether you can make it yourself at home with whole ingredients. It may take a bit longer, but your gut will thank you.
Once you empower yourself to understand these labels, you'll no doubt make healthier buying decisions at the grocery store. Stay natural!