Label Reading: Part 1

Label reading can be very confusing and time consuming. There are various health and nutrition claims found on packaging that can make a product look healthy, when the reality is often the opposite.

When I am grocery shopping and I am looking at a food label to determine if I want to buy a certain product, the most important information I look at is the ingredients list. The health and nutrition claims on food packaging can be confusing and misleading. Sometimes even the nutrition facts panel, where the calories, fat, and other nutrient amounts are listed can be misleading as well. But if you want to know exactly what a product contains, look at the ingredients list.
This week at The Resort, I am running a label reading workshop in which we are examining food labels from 4 different categories of foods: 1) granola bars, 2) margarines, 3) crackers, and 4) peanut/nut butters. I thought I would share some general tips of what to look for in these types of products.
1) Granola Bars:
  • Look for shorter ingredients list (avoid long ingredients lists)
  • 100-200 calorie range per serving
  • 2 grams or more of fiber per serving
  • First ingredient a whole grain (avoid enriched or bleached flours)
  • Look for healthy oils (canola, flax, walnut, etc.)
  • Avoid hydrogenated, partially hydrogenated or modified oils, or palm or palm kernel oils
  • Look for fruit or natural sweeteners to sweeten (avoid artificial sweeteners like aspartame, sucralose, saccharine, acesulfame K)
  • Avoid high fructose corn syrup
  • Avoid artificial flavors or colors
An example of granola bars that I like and would purchase are the Nature Valley Crunchy varieties. These are made from whole grains, use canola oil, and have a lot less ingredients than many other granola bars.
2) Margarines:
  • Look for shorter ingredients list (avoid long ingredients lists)
  • Look for healthy oils (canola, olive, flax, fish oils)
  • Avoid hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oils
  • Look for margarines that contain a higher amount of monounsaturated fat compared to other types of fats
  • Avoid artificial colors or flavors
An example of a margarine spread that I use is Land O Lakes Butter Olive Oil Mix. I like this product because it has three ingredients and contains a high amount of monounsaturated fat.
3) Crackers:
  • Look for shorter ingredients list (avoid long ingredients lists)
  • First ingredient a whole grain (avoid enriched or bleached flours)
  • 3 grams or more of dietary fiber per serving
  • Avoid artificial flavors, sweeteners or colors
  • Avoid hydrogenated, partially hydrogenated or modified oils
  • Avoid high fructose corn syrup
  • Try to find lower sodium products (140 mg or less per serving is a low-sodium product)
An example of crackers that I would purchase are the Original or Low-Fat Original Triscuits. I like these crackers because they have 3 ingredients, the first of which is whole wheat.
4) Peanut/Nut Butters:
  • Look for natural nut butters (the only ingredients are nuts and/or salt)
  • Look for the layer of oil floating on top–besides the ingredients list, this is often how you can tell if a nut butter is natural
  • Avoid ‘no need to stir’ nut butters, even if the label says ‘natural.’ If you don’t need to stir it, they have most likely added other unhealthy ingredients to make this the case.
  • Avoid hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oils
  • Avoid palm or palm kernel oils
  • Avoid added sugars or artificial sweeteners
A few examples of peanut butters that I like are the Adams 100% Natural Peanut Butter (don’t be fooled by the Adams Natural ‘no need to stir’ kind), and the Kirkland Organic Peanut Butter (found at Costco).
Hopefully you’ll find some of these tips useful. Remember, the best way to know the actual content of a food product is to look at the ingredients list. For more information about label reading, check out this past blog post (click the link).
Rachel Andrew MPH, RD, CD