Fitness, Food, healthy living

How To Read Nutrition Labels

Learning to read nutrition labels can be detrimental to your success! This is how I teach my clients to read Nutrition Labels (Front and Back). At the end of this post, play the Label Reading Challenge game and comment below what you found most surprising!

Label on the Front

The Food industry is regulated, but not stupid. They know what consumers “feed” off of. Look for labels that feature health claims like “all-natural,” “Low-fat,” or “Gluten-Free.” Items can be labeled as such so that the consumer thinks they are choosing a healthy option, when the food may in fact didn’t even have gluten in it in the first place. A product can be labeled “fat-free” can STILL contain fat in it. The industry is sly and will do whatever it can for your dollar. Check out these loose regulations that are in place:

  • FAT-FREE less than 0.5 grams of total fat for a given reference amount
  • LIGHT reduced in calories by 50%, reduced fat content by 50% or reduced sodium by 50%
  • CALORIE-FREE less than 5 calories for a given reference amount
  • % FAT-FREE Products that are labeled as __% fat free must contain 3 grams or less of total fat for a given reference amount. A “100% fat-free” claim may be made only on foods that meet the criteria for “fat free” and also contain less than 0.5 grams of fat per 100 grams and contain no added fat.
  • CHOLESTEROL-FREE less than 2 milligrams of cholesterol for a given reference amount and 2 grams or less of saturated fat for a given reference amount
  • SATURATED FAT-FREE less than 0.5 grams saturated fat for a given reference amount, and no more than 0.5 grams of trans fatty acids
  • LOW-FAT 3 grams or less of total fat for a given reference amount
  • LOW-CALORIE no more than 40 calories for a given reference amount (except sugar substitutes)
  • LOW-CHOLESTEROL 20 milligrams or less cholesterol and 2 grams or less of saturated fat for a given reference amount
  • LOW-SATURATED FAT 1 gram or less of saturated fat for a given reference amount and not more than 15% of calories from saturated fat

Label on the Back

This label will give you the most information about the products you are choosing.


Start Here: Be aware of the serving size and amount. Companies will adjust serving size so it looks like there are few calories in the food, when reality is the serving size is very small. Also, when keeping track of your food (like in My Fitness Pal), try to measure out your food according to the serving size.

Check Calories: because, duh. Scientifically, putting your body in a calorie deficit helps you to lose weight. Just be conscious of the calories you ingest. One serving of Ben and Jerry’s may be upwards of 400-500 calories for a couple scoops!

Quick Guide to % Daily Values: Just as shown in the graphic, less than 5% for Daily Value means the product is low in that item. More than 20% means the food is high in that particular ingredient.

Limit These: While I don’t necessarily agree with limiting Fats altogether, you should limit trans fats, cholesterol, sodium and sugar. Trans fast, as we talked about last week in the fats segment, are a byproduct of food processing and can cause heart disease. It used to be recommended to limit saturated fats, but more evidence is showing its more about the TYPE of saturated fats your are choosing. Limit saturated fats in ice cream, but be okay with saturated fats in nuts or coconut products, for example. Cholesterol should be under 300mg/day. Sodium should be between 1500-2300mg/day. Also, limit Sugars. Males should have less than 38mg of sugar/day and females 25mg.

Get Enough of These: Potassium, Fiber, Vitamins, and Minerals. Pretty self explanatory…all things that are good for you. When choosing healthier products, these numbers will be higher signaling a better food choice for you. These items are often added into foods, like cereals, to make an otherwise blah choice a healthier option. Men should get 30-38g of fiber daily; women should get 25g a day.

Don’t Forget Ingredients!!! Now this is usually my first stop when looking over the back of a product because I value high quality, all-natural ingredients when making smart food choices. Generally speaking, fewer ingredients are best or “more natural” products. Some common ingredients I look out for…High Fructose Corn Syrup (simply put, sugar), MSG (causes headaches and brain damage), Colors (Red, Blue, Caramel Color, or any color really; causes hyperactivity, cancer, and allergic reactions), Sodium Nitrates or Nitrites (preservatives that cause cancer), Partially Hydrogenated Oils (hydrogenated means transfats), anything end in -ose (ex: sucrose or glucose, other names for sugar), words I can’t pronounce (most likely chemicals and not fresh ingredients). I recommend eating “from the ground,” choosing foods that aren’t so processed or filled with these nasty chemicals.

Let’s Put it All to the Test:

Choose a Dessert

Based off of labels and ingredients list only, choose the best option for a sweet treat:

Let’s take a look at the labels and my process of elimination.

Option 1 has very few calories and very few sugars. It should be noted that sugar alcohols are still sugar, they just look better on the label. They can cause digestive issues. The ingredients list Erythritol, organic cane sugar, and organic stevia leaf extract which are all used as sweeteners here. Just because something is listed as organic doesn’t automatically make it better for you, organic cane sugar is still sugar.

Option 2 looks decent in regards to calories and sugar, but has very little protein compared to the other options. I do like that the ingredients use things like almond milk and coconut oil. Beware of any ingredient listed as syrup, as that is just sugar.

Option 3 has a whopping 370 calories per serving, and five servings in one tiny container! The second ingredient is liquid sugar, which is not surprising considering it has 38g of sugar total (remember men should be getting less than 38g a day and women 25g). Then continue down the list…Liquid Sugar, sugar, brown sugar, invert cane sugar, molasses…all different ways to list sugar on the label. I do no like how there is soy in the ingredients list so often.

Option 4 does contain probiotics listed as “live and active cultures” which are good for you. It has relatively few calories and few ingredients, but look as how much sugar it has!

Ready for the reveal? I would pick option 1, Halo Top Ice Cream, based on ingredients and calorie count.

Choose a Bar

Based off of labels and ingredients only, choose the best option for a snack bar:

Let’s take a look at the labels and my process of elimination.

Option 1 features few and wholesome ingredients. The fat content seems a little high, but most comes from unsaturated sources. Sugars are also a little high, but as you can expect from the label, most of them come from the dates and not added sources.

Option 2 has slightly more calories, much more sodium, more sugars, and more protein (good). The first ingredient listed as organic brown rice syrup is actually sugar, so that’s a red flag even if it is called “organic.” Then rolled oats, then third ingredient is organic cane syrup, also fancy for sugar. After that comes the soy ingredients that I do not like. It also lists its sources of vitamins and minerals, which may make it look like a healthy choice but doesn’t mean much.

Option 3 looks comparable in calorie count and protein, but has low sodium and sugars. Glucose syrup as a second ingredient means sugar. It also has Soy Protein Isolate, which we already know I like to stay away from soy.

Option 4 has very few ingredients and uses artificial sweeteners like erythritol and stevia to sweeten, so the sugar count is very low. This bar has the most protein out of all, which is something to consider (why are you choosing a bar anyway…as a filler or post workout or ??). It also has the most fiber.

Ready for the reveal? With every bar having relatively the same amount of calories, I would pick option 4, Quest Protein Bar. It has lots of protein and fiber, and few sugars or other “bad stuff.” Option 1, Larabar,  would also be a decent pick, especially if you are looking for something to cure your sweet tooth.

Choose a Drink

Based off of labels and ingredients only, choose the best option for a drink:

Let’s take a look at the labels and my process of elimination.

Option 1 calories look okay but the 21g of sugar is a lot! Sugar in the ingredients list, as is dextrose. Any ingredient ending in -ose is another name for sugar. Natural flavors are listed, but those are often not necessarily natural and really a catch all for whatever flavoring companies want to include. Another red flag for me is the use of colors, especially Blue.

Option 2 has an ingredients list many would envy. Unfortunately, all that fruit (even though it is “natural”) means there is A LOT of sugar in this drink.

Option 3 has low nutrition profile…barely gives you anything except SUGAR, and more sugar than one person needs on a daily basis. High fructose corn syrup is horrible for you and caramel color is not much better than other colors like blue or red and is carcinogenic. We’ve already covered natural flavors above. It is important to note caffeine as well. Although this product doesn’t have much (34mg compared to  95mg in a cup of coffee), if you are drinking multiple a day this does add up.

Option 4 drink contains 100% juice, so even though it is made from a concentrate, it’s the healthiest kind without any added sugar. As with many fruit drinks, there are still lots of sugars. The sulfites it uses to “maintain flavor and freshness” are not healthy for you either.

Option 5 has the fewest ingredients, although we already know “naturally essenced” is the same as natural flavors, which can be a combination of many different things that are far from natural.

Ready for the reveal? I would pick option 5, La Croix Sparkling Water, even though it has no nutrient value. It is the cleanest product and of course, doesn’t have any calories. Compare this to Gatorade, which high Sodium and Sugar content can be beneficial and has a place after a very strenuous workout, but should not be a drink to sip on all day. The Bolthouse fruit drink has too much sugar for what it is worth. Of course I do NOT recommend pop, mostly because of the carcinogenic ingredients and no benefit to your body at all. The full fruit juice could be a good option, but has just as much sugar as pop, which already exceeds your daily value for the day. Plain water would be the best option.

What was the most surprising find for you in the Label Challenge?

1 thought on “How To Read Nutrition Labels”

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