Health & Wellness

How to Read a Nutrition Label

12.28.11 Nutrtion Cotton Candy Magazine

Do you find yourself overwhelmed when trying to make good decisions about what to buy at the grocery market? With all of the luring claims on the front of food packages, making informative choices can be downright confusing.  Walk down the market aisle, and you will see a plethora of appealing packages boasting claims such as “organic”, “natural”, “gluten-free”, “trans-fat free”, “lower in sugar” and the list goes on. As a savvy shopper, the first thing to know is you should make your choices on facts other than these claims.  They do not necessarily mean the product within is a healthy choice for you.  For example, in order to claim a product is “made with organic ingredients” only 70 percent of the ingredients need to be organic.  We should also note a product an organic product is not inherently healthy – organic cheese puffs are still junk food.

As a savvy shopper you must be an investigator, which means digging beneath the surface.  Turn the box or bag over, and take a close look at the nutrition label.  We know that the nutrition label can be confusing.  Cotton Candy contributor and founder of NYC’s Pure Nutrition Christian Henderson gives the rundown on the most important items on the label.

No. 1 Ingredients
First things first. Read the list of ingredients. Ingredients are listed in order of predominance in the product – where the first couple of ingredients make up the bulk of the product and the ones listed towards the end make up only a small portion of the product. A long list of ingredients, especially ones you can’t pronounce, is a warning sign you should probably avoid the product. When reading the list of ingredients here are a few things to be on the lookout for:

a. Partially hydrogenated oils (trans fats).

b. Added sugars, which include ingredients ending in –ose, as well as corn syrup, honey, maple syrup, agave, and molasses.

c. Artificial Sweeteners, such as, sucralose, saccarin, aspartame, acesulfame.

d. Additives and preservatives, such as sodium nitrate, food preseravativs including BHA and BHT, potassium bromate, MSG (mono-sodium glutamate), etc.

e. Artificial colorings, such as, caramel, blue 2, green 3, yellow 5, etc.

No. 2 Serving Size
The serving size is important.   The nutrition information is based on this measurement.  Keep in mind serving size is not a recommendation, just a measurement.  There are often many servings per container.

No. 3 Percent Daily Value
The percentages listed on the right side of the label refer to the percentage of the daily value (% DV)  of specific nutrients (calories, fat, etc.) contained in one serving of the product. These percentages are based on a 2000-calorie diet, which is not the ideal diet for everyone.  These percentages will give you a general idea of whether a food is low or high in specific nutrient.

No. 4 Calories
The calories in a food can come from fat, protein and carbohydrates. Calories are important.  If you eat more calories than you use you will gain weight. If you eat less, you will lose.

No. 5 Nutrients
At a minimum a food label must provide information on the amount of total fat, saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol, sodium, carbohydrates, dietary fiber, sugars, protein, vitamins A and C, iron, and calcium. Generally speaking you will want to make sure you don’t get too much fat, saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol and sodium, and that you get enough dietary fiber, vitamins A and C, iron, and calcium.

Final Note:
The focus of your diet should be on foods that typically do not have labels or just have one ingredient. Fresh vegetables and fruits, beans and legumes, whole grains, organic eggs, wild fish, organic cage-free poultry and free-range lean beef are all great examples.


Written by: Christian Henderson

Christian Henderson, founder of the Manhattan-based private practice Pure Nutrition, is a Registered Dietitian and Certified Nutritionist.  Partnering with clients, she creates personalized and unique healthy eating plans focusing on high quality whole foods, recognizing individual differences in lifestyle, body and food preferences.

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