Are You Smarter than a Food Label?

Deception is all around us in the fitness world. Diet pills promise you can eat whatever you want and still lose weight. Exercise DVDs claim you’ll lose inches upon inches working out just 20 minutes per day. Surely if there is one thing you can trust to help you stay fit it’s a food label, right? Wrong.

Food companies want to make money. They don’t care that you are watching what you eat in order to stay healthy. They choose to stretch the truth on the front of food packaging and make labels as confusing as possible to trick you into thinking their food is healthy when it actually might not be.

Therefore, as a good consumer and healthy individual, it’s important that you stay smarter than those trickster food labels. Below are examples of three food labels and tips about how to read them accurately and efficiently.

We’ll start with this label, which comes from Kellogg’s Eggo Nutri-Grain Blueberry frozen waffles. This product contains three different brand identities in the name of the food alone, and it boasts various health-related claims on the front of the package, including that it is whole grain.

Kellogg’s Eggo Nutri-Grain Blueberry frozen waffles
Where do I start? You’ll want to start with the very top of the label, at the serving size and servings per container. Some food products use ridiculously small serving sizes to try and trick you into thinking their product isn’t unhealthy, when really you probably consume double or triple what the label says.

What are my next steps? Next, check out “Calories” and “Calories from Fat.” You’ll want to make sure the total calories are aligned with how many total calories you need to consume in a day. This will be different for everyone. Then make sure your food does not derive more than 30 percent of its calories from fat. To figure this out, divide the calories from fat by the total number of calories to get 0.27777 (50/180). When you move the decimal two places to the right, we see that only 27.7 percent of this product’s calories come from fat, so it’s not “unhealthy” yet.

What about that big portion of the label? This space contains lots of information, which can be read differently depending on all types of diets. Stay away from ALL trans fats no matter what diet you are on. And focus most on ingredients affecting your personal needs. When I think breakfast, I think I need to feel full for as long as possible, so I focus on fiber, sugar and protein. I know there is not enough protein or fiber in one serving of these waffles to be my breakfast by itself, so I’ll pair it with low-fat milk and an apple.

What do those percentages mean at the bottom of my label? The percentages at the bottom of the label reflect the percentage that the product meets daily recommendations for each nutrient. This number is based on a 2,000-calorie-per-day diet. Therefore, if your diet recommends you eat more or less than 2,000 calories per day, these percentages aren’t completely accurate for you.

I’m done, right? No way! One of the most important parts of label reading is watching the ingredients. Remember that on the front the package boasts whole grain. However, we can see on the ingredient list that the second item is “enriched flour,” which means this product is not 100 percent whole grain and contains more processed flour than whole wheat flour. The ingredients are always listed from most to least, so we also see that sugar is pretty high on the list and pretty abundant in the product as well.

So is this product healthy or not? Great question! This product can be healthy or unhealthy depending on your particular nutritional needs or tastes. That’s why reading labels correctly is so important … the only person you can depend on is YOU when reading and selecting food products.

What else do I need to know? You also need to be able to compare similar products using labels. That way you can get exactly what your body needs from the foods you love. Let’s practice using labels from two similar products, Kashi Blueberry frozen waffles and Simple Truth Gluten-Free frozen waffles.

Kashi Blueberry frozen waffles
Again, we see the serving size is two waffles and that exactly 30 percent of calories are from fat. These waffles have 30 less calories than Kellogg’s.

Here, there is more fiber and less sugar in these waffles than Kellogg’s. There is also less sodium and the same amount of protein.

Here we see that water, whole-wheat flour, and blueberries are the first three ingredients. That means there is more whole grain in these waffles than Kellogg’s.

So is this product better? Again, it all depends on what you are looking for and what your diet requires. Kashi tends to be the most expensive product, so maybe the price difference is enough to sacrifice a bit in terms of nutrition. It’s mostly important that you know what you are looking for on labels and how to find that information.

Simple Truth Gluten-Free frozen waffles
In this example, there are 31.8 percent calories from fat per serving. A little over our recommendation, but not too much to disregard this product altogether.

Now we find there is less fiber and less protein than our first two examples.

Watch the ingredients! These don’t contain blueberries; they contain “blueberry bits,” which are basically all-sugar, manufactured blueberry imposters.

These really are worse than the first two, right? Well … if you really love waffles, yet you require a gluten-free diet, these will be easier on your digestive system than our first two examples. However, keep in mind that just because you see a healthy claim like “Gluten Free” on the front of a package, it doesn’t mean the product is healthy.

By now you should be smarter than any food label that you come across! No food product or tricky advertising is going to fool you into buying and eating something that isn’t healthy. With more than 40,000 products available for purchase in a typical grocery store, reading labels is really the only thing that can help you decide what’s best to put in your cart and your body.

Sarah earned her degree and teaching license from The Ohio State University. She currently teaches nutrition, cooking, and fitness to all learners from pre-school age to senior citizen.