Ideally, most of the food we eat would be natural, whole foods that don’t come with nutrition labels. But we’re all human; sometimes we’re in rush and need a quick snack and other times we just want to munch on something that comes in a convenient package.
Regardless, making the healthier choice comes down to reading your food label and examining the nutritional breakdown and ingredients.
But what exactly does that mean? People tend to just focus on calories—which are certainly important—but there are other items on the nutrition label that deserve your attention.
We asked registered dietitians to reveal the biggest things you should look out for on your favorite packaged foods. It’s worth more than just a quick scan.
Many packaged foods will try to disguise themselves as “healthy” by breaking up serving sizes into smaller portions. For instance, 10 grams (g) of sugar doesn’t seem like a lot for breakfast cereal, until you learn that one serving is on average 40g (without milk). Have you ever measured out 40g of cereal? It's not much.
“Serving size does not always match the amount that you will be eating or drinking,” says certified exercise physiologist Jim White, R.D., owner of Jim White Fitness and Nutrition Studios. “Always make sure you are taking into account how many servings of that food or drink you plan to consume. If a bag of crisps has three servings, but you eat the whole bag, you have to multiply everything on the label by three.”
Its recommended to Britons that sugar should account for no more than 5% of daily calories, yet the national diet and nutrition survey (NDNS) found it was more like 12.3% for adults under 65 and 11.1% for those aged 65 and over.
While these sugars don’t necessarily include naturally-occurring sugar like the kind in fruit and dairy, packaged foods tend to sneak in sugar for taste. White recommends finding something with the lowest amount of sugar possible—but if that’s unavoidable, stick to less than 10 grams of sugar per serving.
Try this trick from Natalie Allen, R.D., ME.d., clinical faculty of biomedical sciences at Missouri State University: Look at the total grams of carbohydrates on the nutrition label and subtract the grams you get from fiber. Of that number, less than half of the carbs should come from sugar. So if you are eating something that has 20 grams of carbs and 4 grams of fiber, you would want it to have less than 8 grams of sugar.
If you want to take a simpler approach, just avoid anything that has sugar, or any variation of it (there are over 50 words for sugar) listed as one of the first three ingredients, says White.
When eating packaged food, you should know exactly what you’re putting into your body. If you’re not eating a whole food, it helps to choose a packaged option consisting of whole ingredients. When you jump down to the ingredients, they will be listed in order of percentage per product. The shorter the ingredients list, the better, says White.
Although traditional wisdom says you should avoid any ingredients that you can’t pronounce or aren’t familiar with, reading the ingredients list is a little more nuanced than that, says Allen.
“Just because a word on the ingredient list [is something] somebody doesn’t know about or hasn’t heard of, doesn’t necessarily make it something bad,” she explains. “A really common ingredient that’s listed on foods is cholecalciferol, and that is just a very nice and fancy way of saying vitamin D.”
Instead, she says to focus on the first few ingredients, particularly the first ingredient, the most. Those should typically be easy to read and pronounce.
Whether you’re looking to build muscle or need a satiating snack, protein is an important macronutrient to look out for on a nutrition label. Protein fills you up and helps repair your muscle tissue after strength training, Allen explains, which helps them grow bigger and stronger.
For a snack, Allen recommends 5 to 10 g of protein if you’re sticking with a packaged food. Ideally, you want a minimum of 10 g, but that’s harder to find in a store-bought snack, unless you reach for a protein bar or drink. If you’re eating something that’s particularly carb-heavy, like rice cakes or ryvita, try pairing it with nut butter for an extra dose of protein.
As a general rules of thumb, meals should have 30 grams of protein, including those frozen meals you pick up when really rushed for time.
One micronutrient that is often overlooked but important for your overall diet is fibre. “It fills you up. It keeps your colon healthy. It also can help with weight management. So, that’s one good thing to look at on food labels.” says Allen.
White suggests sticking with foods that have at least 3 g of fibre per serving. Although fibre is mostly found in whole foods, such as fruits, vegetables, and legumes, you can still find it in packaged goods, like protein bars, cereal, and whole grain bread.
Fats aren’t the enemy, but one to keep an eye out for is partially-hydrogenated oil, a type of trans fat.
Trans fats can raise your body’s bad cholesterol, lower its good cholesterol, and potentally increase your risk of heart disease, stroke, and type 2 diabetes.
The other fats listed on the panel (saturated fat and total fat) are fine, as long as they are within your daily limit. Roughly 20 to 30 percent of your daily calories should come from fat, says White, which translates to about 55 g to 83 g a day for a 2,500 calorie diet. Good fats, such as omega-3s and monounsaturated fats, are necessary for your overall diet and can help protect against heart disease.