Food Labels 101: What to Look for


Make your next trip to the grocery store easier and healthier by knowing what to look for on labels.

With misleading food labels and hard-to-read ingredients lists, how do you know if you’re actually making healthy choices? Many time food companies are trying to trick you into thinking things are healthier than they are. So here’s what you should be looking out for next time you pick up a packaged food …

Misleading Terms to Know

If it comes in a box, the chances of a product being “natural” are unlikely. However, many food manufacturers use this trick to get consumers to buy their products. According to the Center for Food Safety, the term “natural” is not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) nor enforced by the USDA. This means each manufacturer interprets and uses the term differently. Foods labeled “natural” can include artificial ingredients and can even be genetically engineered. Additionally, “natural” meat can be raised with synthetic animal feed and antibiotics, and produce can be grown with pesticides.

Instead, choose certified organic products with no GMOs. These terms are regulated, and have stringent requirements for products to make these claims.

Lightly Sweetened
Like the term “natural,” there are very few standards for the food marketing term “lightly sweetened.” The Center for Food Safety reports that the FDA does have definitions for “no added sugar,” “sugar free” and “reduced sugar,” however, this can be misleading and confusing to consumers since “lightly sweetened” is not defined. Consumers may find the term on canned fruits, juices and cereals, which are often loaded with corn syrup, sugar and other artificial sweeteners.

Instead, look for products labeled with the terms clearly defined by the FDA, like “no sugar added” and “sugar free.”

Fat Free
“Fat-free” is a notoriously misleading food label, and it doesn’t always mean non-fat. (Confusing, right?) In many cases, food products labeled with the term contain just as many or more calories than their full-fat versions. The FDA allows any food products with .5 grams of fat to be labeled as a fat-free food item.

It might not seem like half a gram of fat could possibly hurt, but when it comes to multiple serving sizes, those add up. And, we have a tendency to eat even more of a food product labeled “fat-free.”

When choosing food products with the “fat-free” label at the grocery store, be on the lookout for hidden fats, including ingredients like cream, palm oil (and all oils), milk solids, shortening and trans fats. Read the food labels and be sure to understand the serving size. If purchasing prepackaged food items, consider selecting ones with servings pre-measured, or measure your serving sizes in healthy portions at home before snacking.

Low Carb
Diet plans that focus on low-carb consumption have been linked to improved health, so long as other nutrients are balanced. Eggs, beef, chicken, fish, tomatoes, kale and more, are all healthy choices. However, it’s not unusual to find junk-food items labeled with the term “low-carb” at the grocery store. Junk-food marketers know eating healthy can be confusing, and some will use buzzwords to trick us with misleading labels.

Remember your body needs carbs to recover from exercise. It’s smart to approach low-carb options with careful consideration. Carbs are best for your body in the form of whole grains and fresh produce, not prepackaged chips and cookies.

Gluten Free
The food industry recently defined the term “gluten-free” and brought it into compliance in 2014. According to the FDA, food items labeled with the term “gluten free” are inherently free of gluten or do not contain ingredients that are “gluten-containing,” such as wheat and grain, spelt, wheat starch or wheat flour. However, just because a food is labeled “gluten free” doesn’t mean it is a healthy choice. USA Today reports that the $5 billion gluten-free industry is a target for food producers who piggyback on the food trend. Domino’s Pizza has even jumped on the gluten-free bandwagon. However, the popular pizza makers disclose that its “gluten-free” pizza crust option should not be consumed by people with celiac disease. According to the University of Chicago Celiac Disease Center, only one percent of the U.S. population has the condition.

If you’re considering eliminating wheat from your diet, do so carefully and pay close attention to the food labels on products labeled “gluten free.” In many cases, pre-packaged gluten-free items are loaded with extras that are not part of a healthy diet. If you want to eat healthy without the wheat, it’s best to eat whole foods and stay away from the cookies, snacks and candies with the “gluten-free” label.

Look for These Beneficial Ingredients

Even deciphering healthy ingredients is sometimes confusing. If you’re looking to improve focus, endurance and your performance at the gym, seek out foods with these ingredients:

This ingredient may not be so hard to pronounce, but it sure is hidden (and underrated). Magnesium is the single-most important nutrient your muscles need to perform physical activity, and most Americans are deficient in it. This nutrient promotes ATP production, oxygen uptake, electrolyte and blood-sugar balance and muscle function. Shoot for 500mg per day. Cedars-Sinai Medical Center provides a helpful list of magnesium-rich foods here.

Creatine is a nutrient that was doubted initially but it has stood the test of time, especially for people who are weight training and looking to build muscle. Multiple studies show it improves anabolic function, ATP production and performance. Supplements are available, though it’s also naturally occurring in wild game, wild-caught fish and free-range meats.

Glutamine and branched-chain amino acids are valuable for muscle damage and inflammation. Glutamine aids in nitrogen balance and prevents muscle breakdown, while aminos increase tryptophan uptake to the brain, which helps fights serotonic depletions.

An adaptogen is a substance that is known to stabilize physiological processes and promotion of homeostasis. Rhodiola has been shown to improve exercise performance. While cordyceps is another great ingredient, which improves VO2 max and is really great for endurance athletes.

Be cautious about ingredients you can’t pronounce or seem hidden in a long list, but don’t disregard foods just for this reason. As you see above, some of those hidden ingredients are actually good for you.

But remember, because front-of-the-package food labeling is mostly for attention-catching, make purchase decisions based on the nutrition information on the back and the ingredients list. And when it doubt, always choose whole foods over packaged.

For more information, check out these tips on what to look for on the labels of yogurt, enhanced waters and protein bars.