Always Judge a Food by Its Package

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This quick test can help you tell whether the item you’re eyeing is actually healthy or just the product of creative marketing.

Last updated: December 23, 2020
How to Read a Food Label Like You’re a Dietitian

Vegan cauliflower “cheese” puffs. Chocolate hummus. Plant-based, grain-free cookie dough. These foods certainly sound healthy. But are they?

The truth: The words and numbers on a package are your best bet for figuring out where the food falls on the healthy-to-unhealthy spectrum. The problem is, most people don’t know how to interpret them. One survey found that 83 percent of Americans are confused by ingredients on food labels at least some of the time (see, it’s not just you). On top of that, brands use marketing tactics, including making unsubstantiated health claims and attempting to tap into your emotions, to influence what ends up in your fridge and pantry, says Ryan Maciel, RD, the head performance-nutrition coach for Precision Nutrition.

Before putting any packaged food in your cart, take it through Maciel’s four-step test:

How to Read a Food Label Like You’re a Dietitian

01. Scan the front.
Consider the front of a box or bag a commercial: The company is using that space to sell you something rather than just inform you. While many statements used on packaging, like “organic” and “good source” of something, are closely regulated and have strict definitions, other language, like “natural” and “made with real X or Y,” can be misleading.

Obviously, claims like these can influence how healthy you think a product will be. But even if the claims are true, they don’t necessarily correlate with nutritional quality, finds a study in the “Journal of Public Policy & Marketing.” For example, a food may well be low-fat or gluten-free, but whether or not eating low-fat or gluten-free foods is actually good for you is something you need to work out with your doctor or dietitian. And those foods could still have other not-so-great traits, as you’ll learn below.

Researchers refer to this phenomenon as the “health halo,” which is when you assume a health claim means a product is good for you. The truth is, “the more claims you see on a food, the more red flags should pop up in your head,” says Maciel. “Take spinach, for example. You don’t see a lot of marketing tricks to get you to buy it. It sells itself.”

02. Cross-check the claims.
If the packaging calls out, say, fiber, look at the nutrition-facts panel to see just how many grams it contains. A “good source” of something will have at least 10 percent of your recommended daily value (in the case of fiber, that’s 2.5 to 3 grams), while a “high” amount or “excellent source” will top 20 percent (so that’d be 5 grams or more), says Maciel.

Then check the ingredient list to see whether that fiber comes from a naturally occurring source, such as whole grains, legumes, or fruits and veggies, or from something less identifiable that’s been added to bulk up the fiber content, like psyllium husk or cellulose. Do the same for the protein content, scanning for whole, real foods, like peas instead of pea protein isolate. “Foods in their more natural state are better for us because they are generally more nutrient-dense and lower in calories,” says Maciel.

Do this exercise with all of the nutrition claims you see. If the rest of the package more or less backs up what’s on the front, keep investigating. If it doesn’t, you might want to re-shelve the product — the company could be misleading you for a reason.

“The more claims you see on a food, the more red flags should pop up in your head.”

Ryan Maciel
RD, Head Performance-Nutrition Coach at Precision Nutrition

03. Inspect the ingredients.
Now it’s time to take a closer look at that ingredient list. Since ingredients are listed in order of weight (as in, the first one makes up the bulk of that food), the first three ingredients are the most crucial. You want real, whole foods in those spots, like lean proteins, veggies, fruits or whole grains. If there’s sugar, it should be lower on the list, preferably toward the bottom, says Maciel. (Also try to stick to one source of sugar — ideally honey, dates or similar — and remember that anything with the word “syrup” or ending in “-ose” is a sugar.)

While there’s no set number of ingredients that draws the line between healthy and not, a short ingredient list always beats a long one, says Maciel. He says that the more ingredients are in an item, the more processed that item tends to be (and recent research shows that eating a diet heavy in ultraprocessed food is associated with overeating, excess weight and higher disease risk).

04. Consider the facts.
If you’ve gotten this far, it’s time to zero in on the nutrition panel, starting with the serving size, says Maciel. This year, the FDA updated the serving sizes for many foods to better reflect how much people actually eat. But, mind-blowingly, these aren’t nutritionist-recommended portion sizes, says Maciel. They’re just the amount the average person eats, and they’re meant to put the rest of the nutritional info into context. If you see that a serving of granola is ⅓ cup and you usually eat a whole bowl, you can multiply the numbers on the label to discover that you’re probably downing more calories, fat or sugar than you actually want.

You also should take stock of the amount of added sugars, which differs from the sugars naturally found in certain foods, like fruit and milk, and calls out those added during processing to sweeten a food. This number really matters: Too much added sugar (more than 25 grams daily for women and 36 for men, according to the American Heart Association and the USDA) can spike your blood sugar, lead to energy crashes, and invite a host of health issues, from skin problems to disrupted sleep, per research.

The Unwritten Asterisk

Of course, the easiest way to simplify your food choices and make healthier ones is to opt for as many foods as you can that don’t have labels at all. You don’t need a nutrition-facts panel to tell you that tomatoes, apples and kale can help you feel your best. And their natural packaging? Heck, quite appealing. Not to mention, better for the earth too.

How to Read a Food Label Like You’re a Dietitian

Take It Further

For more expert-backed guidance on mindset, as well as movement, nutrition, recovery and sleep, check out the Nike Training Club app.

How to Read a Food Label Like You’re a Dietitian

Take It Further

For more expert-backed guidance on mindset, as well as movement, nutrition, recovery and sleep, check out the Nike Training Club app.

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