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The Ultimate Guide To Reading Food Labels

Updated: Jul 11, 2022

We live in an age where it's not enough to just choose foods marketed as "healthy". Just because a product says gluten-free, non GMO, cholesterol free, organic or sugar-free, does not mean its good for your body. Always read the ingredient label before you buy!

  1. Understanding The Numbers

  2. Ingredients to Avoid

  3. What Marketing Labels Actually Mean

  4. Quick Recap

Understanding The Numbers

All food products should list a serving size as well as the number of servings per container. For example, if you look at the back of a protein bar it could be listed as Serving Size: 1 bar, 1 serving per container, or it could be listed as Serving Size: ½ bar, 2 servings per container. Sometimes companies will divide servings into smaller portions, so that at first glance it appears to contain fewer calories, especially sugar. Watch out for this!

When it comes to reviewing the numbers, you will be looking to see how many grams of each macronutrient and how much sugar the product contains. There are 3 types of macronutrients: carbohydrates, proteins and fats.⁠⁣

Carbohydrates: Carbohydrates contain 4 calories per gram. All carbs get broken down into glucose (sugar) and serve as the main energy source for your body.

Proteins: Proteins contain 4 calories per gram. Protein allows your body to grow, build and repair tissues.

Fats: Fats contain 9 calories per gram. Fats allow you to store energy, make certain hormones, and absorb fat soluble vitamins.

Whether a product should be high or low in one of these macro-nutrients is determined by your individual health goals.

The numbers will be listed in the following order on the label:

Calories: The amount of energy per serving. Remember that lower calories does not always equal healthier.

Fat: The total fat content per serving. It includes saturated fat and trans-fat. Avoid trans fats, which are processed, hydrogenated fats that are harmful to your health.

Cholesterol: This value indicates the total amount of cholesterol per serving. Don’t let this number scare you.  Your body needs cholesterol for hormone production and cell membrane structure.

Sodium: The total amount of sodium per serving.

Carbohydrates: The total carbohydrates listed in this section includes fibers, sugars, and sugar alcohols. Underneath the total carbs section, you may find sections for dietary fiber, total sugars, total grams of added sugar, and in some cases sugar alcohols or substitutes.

Protein: The total amount of protein per serving.

Vitamins & Minerals: You may notice this section only has a few vitamins or minerals. Nutrition labels typically have values related to the product.

Ingredients To Avoid

The most important area to check on the food label is the ingredient list. This will tell you exactly what you are eating. Product ingredients are listed by quantity — from highest to lowest amount. This means that the first ingredient is what mainly makes up the item.

When looking at the ingredient list, you want to be able to pronounce all of the words and recognize them as real foods. If you flip over a product and see a lengthy ingredient list with words that sound like chemicals, chances are its highly processed.

Below are specific ingredients to avoid.

Added Sugar The average American adult consumes on average 17 tsp of added sugar a day. Sugar is an energy source for the body, but that is far more sugar than we need. The recommended daily amount is only 6 tsp or about 25g!

Individuals who are consuming too much sugar, surprisingly aren't eating cake for every meal. Companies are sneaking sugar into things like dressings, sauces, and cereals. A lot of "healthy" products can also contain high amounts of sugar, which really confuses consumers.

Take Annie's Organic Chocolate Chip Granola Bars for example. On the label it reads "organic, no artificial flavors or colors, no high-fructose corn syrup, made with whole grains and real chocolate chips." ⁠⁣⁣

If you don't take time to read the label you might pick this up thinking it's super healthy and a quick win for your health! Sure, it's better than a candy bar, but if you look at the ingredient list you will see the second ingredient listed is tapioca syrup.... then cane sugar, more tapioca syrup, cane sugar, more cane sugar, and brown rice syrup.⁠⁣⁣ One small bar contains 7g of added sugar and barely any protein and fiber to slow down the absorption of the sugar into your blood stream.


You have to be careful with sugar. This is not just happening in granola bars. Check your pasta sauces, dressings, yogurts, nut butters, dried fruit and anything that comes in a package.

Alternative names for sugar to watch out for:

beet sugar, brown sugar, buttered sugar, cane sugar, caster sugar, coconut sugar, date sugar, golden sugar, invert sugar, organic raw sugar, evaporated cane juice, confectioner’s sugar, carob syrup, golden syrup, high-fructose corn syrup, honey, agave nectar, malt syrup, maple syrup, oat syrup, rice bran syrup, rice syrup, barley malt, molasses, cane juice crystals, lactose, corn sweetener, crystalline fructose, dextran, malt powder, ethyl maltol, fructose, fruit juice concentrate, galactose, glucose, disaccharides, maltodextrin, and maltose.

Artificial Sweeteners and Sugar Alcohols

If you're watching for added sugars, it might be easy to reach for "sugar-free" products, but be cautious. There is no standard certification for “sugar-free”. While sugar-free products may not contain sucrose or cane sugar, many still contain high glycemic sweeteners that will raise your blood sugar. These products are full of artificial sweeteners and sugar alcohols that disrupt you gut microbiome.

Artificial Sweeteners:

Acesulfame K (brand names: Sunett® and Sweet One®), Advantame, Aspartame (brand names: Equal® and NutraSweet Natural™), Neotame (brand name: Newtame™), Saccharin (brand names: Sweet ‘N Low® and Sugar Twin®, Sucralose (brand name: Splenda™)

Although they have no calories, artificial sweeteners have been shown to contribute to weight gain by encouraging sugar cravings. Research finds they stimulate your appetite and promote fat storage and weight gain.

Sugar Alcohols:

Erythritol, Isomalt, Lactitol, Maltitol , Mannitol, Sorbitol , Xylitol

Sugar alcohols aren't much better. They are calorie free and some occur naturally from fruits and vegetables, however most of them are produced industrially, Most manufactures don't use the natural stuff, instead they start with genetically engineered corn and then go through a complex fermentation process to come up with the finished product. Sugar alcohols are also hard for our bodies to digest and can lean to GI issues.

Inflammatory Oils

Apart from sugar, oils are the second most important ingredient to watch for. Some oils are anti-inflammatory, while others actually promote inflammation.

Inflammatory oils to avoid:

vegetable oil⁣, soybean oil⁣, canola oil⁣, corn oil⁣, safflower⁠⁣⁣ oil, and sunflower⁠⁣⁣ oil.

Unfortunately a lot of restaurants and companies use these oils because they are cheap. These oils are inflammatory because they are highly processed and full of omega-6 fatty acids. While a small amount of omega-6 fats is essential for overall health, studies show that we are consuming way too much of it.

Anti-inflammatory oils:

Avocado oil, olive oil, walnut oil, coconut oil, flaxseed oil

These oils are high in omega-3 fatty acids, which actually help to reduce inflammation in the body. Ideally you'll want your oils to be "cold-pressed". This means they were processed without any heat or chemicals.

Food Dyes

Many artificial dyes are made from petroleum and known to be contaminated with carcinogens. Dyes like Yellow #6 and Red #40 actually require warning labels in Europe, and are linked to hyperactivity in children. Most foods containing artificial food dyes are highly processed as well. Everything we put in our body has a huge effect on our cells.

So the next time you reach for that “colorful” food like Trix rainbow cereal or fun fetti cake, think twice.

Avoid these food dyes:

Red 3, Red 40, Blue 1, Blue 2, Green 3, Yellow 5, Yellow 6,

Nitrates & Nitrites

Nitrates and nitrites are compounds that occur naturally in our bodies and some foods. Companies add them to processed foods to make them more shelf stable. You'll likely see nitrates and nitrites added to bacon, hot dogs, and other processed meats in the form of "sodium nitrite". These processed meats are high in protein, which is made up of amino acids. The problem occurs when nitrates and amino acids are both present and cooked with high heat. The heat produces nitrosamines which is a carcinogenic compound.

Steer clear of these ingredients:

sodium nitrate, sodium nitrite, potassium nitrate, potassium nitrite

Food Additives & Preservatives

There is a lengthy list of food additives and preservatives that are harmful to your health. Below are some of the most common ingredients that should be limited or avoided all together in your diet.

Soy Lecithin:

This is an emulsifying additive that helps keep food ingredients from separating. It's produced using a chemical solvent and is bleached with hydrogen peroxide. It has been linked to toxic build up in the body. Sunflower lecithin is a better alternative than soy lecithin because it can be extracted without the use of harsh chemical solvents.


Butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA) and butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT) are two ingredients that help keep foods fresh longer; however, they've been linked to developmental and reproductive toxicity, endocrine disruption, and lung and skin irritation.


This is an emulsifier that keeps ingredients from separating. It's known to cause digestive problems and intestinal inflammation. It has also been labeled as a possible carcinogen.

Natural Flavors

The FDA allows food companies to use the term “natural flavors” to describe any food additive that originated in nature, but that doesn’t mean chemicals can’t be added. 80 to 90 percent of the ingredients that make up natural flavors contain chemical solvents and preservatives. Natural flavors are also designed to be addictive.

Calcium Peroxide

This is a bleaching agent and dough conditioner that is actually banned in foreign countries. If you see this on the ingredient list, it's a sign the food is heavily processed.

Bleached Flour

Did you know flour can be treated with 60 different chemicals before it ends up on store shelves? The industrial processing of flour destroys the nutrients so they have to “enrich” it with synthetic vitamins that are not from nature.

Monosodium Glutamate

This is an artificial flavor enhancer and is used to increase food cravings making you want to eat more. It's been linked to headaches, weight gain, and mood issues.

Monoglycerides and Diglycerides

These emulsifiers are a byproduct of oil processing which contain artificial trans fat. The consumption of this fat is strongly correlated with an increased risk of type 2 diabetes and heart disease.

Paraben's (Propylparaben & Methylparaben)

Parabens are a type of preservative and can often be found in cheap baked goods like muffins, cakes and tortillas, but, they can also be in healthy products like trail mix. These preservatives have been classified as endocrine-disrupting chemicals that are linked to breast cancer and reproductive problems

Propyl Gallate

This additive has been linked to increased risk of tumors and endocrine disruption.

Sodium Benzoate & Potassium Benzoate

These two preservatives when combined with either ascorbic acid (vitamin C) or erythorbic acid produce a compound called benzene, which is a known carcinogen.

Soy Protein Isolate

Be weary of soy products, they can cause hormonal disruptions because they have estrogen-mimicking properties. Soy protein is usually extracted with the neurotoxin hexane and often made from GMO soybeans


Guar gum, gellan gum, carob bean gum, arabic gum, and xanthan gum are used to help with the texture of food products; however, these ingredients are known to cause stomach issues like bloating and gas.

What Marketing Labels Actually Mean

Now that you understand how to read the numbers and check for harmful ingredients, let's talk about some of those common marketing labels you see on the front of the packages that might confuse you.


This term means animals do not live in cages. However, this does not designate how much space each animal is given. Even if these animals are not housed in cages, they could be kept in overcrowded areas with little to no room to move, limiting exercise and nutrition, and decreasing the overall quality.

Free Range

This designation means the animals do not live in cages and have access to the outdoors. There is technically no legal definition of this term and is not enforced by the USDA, meaning the animals could be living in an over-packed coup with the chance to go outside for 5 minutes every year and it could still be technically labeled as free-range. Again, these living conditions limit exercise and nutrition, decreasing the quality of the food product.


This is considered the gold-standard because animals are guaranteed to have some section of land outdoors. Chickens, who are pasture-raised provide more nutrient-dense eggs since they are able to eat natural foods and have more exercise. Pasture-raised food products are considered superior to cage-free and free-range.

Grain Fed

This term designates once animals are weaned from their mother, they are fed a grain-based diet, primarily consisting of corn and soy.

Grass Fed

This term is not well regulated, but it generally means at some point in the animal’s life, it fed on primarily grass. A grass-fed animal could have consumed grass for the first half of its life and then transitioned to eating primarily grains.  Studies suggest grass-fed meats have more micronutrients, omega 3s, and conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) than grain fed meats.

Grass Fed & Finished

Animals who consume only grass for the entirety of their life are considered grass finished. Research suggests grass finished meats are more micronutrient dense than both grass and grain-fed meat.

Made with Organic Ingredients

Food products that contain 70% or more organic ingredients but do not meet the criteria for USDA organic are labeled as made with organic ingredients.

Certified Naturally Grown

This certification label is extremely similar to USDA Organic, meeting the same standards, but products do not come from a farm certified by the USDA.

USDA Organic

The USDA National Organic label is displayed on food products that contain at least 95% organic ingredients that contain none of the following: antibiotics, pesticides, growth hormones, manufactured/synthetic ingredients, or irradiation. These food products are grown on farm certified by the USDA.


This certification means that food items contain either no or “low-risk” genetically-modified ingredients.

Hormone-Free/ RBGH-Free

Animals are often treated with hormones to increase their size or food production. Recombinant bovine growth hormone (RBGH) is a hormone given to cows to increase milk production. Other animals, like chickens, may be treated with steroid hormones such as estrogen, progesterone, or testosterone to increase growth. There is concern that animals treated with these hormones have higher levels of steroid hormones that can be absorbed by humans after consumption.

Raised without Antibiotics

Animals treated with steroid hormones are more likely to develop infections that other animals. Because of this, hormone-treated animals are often also given antibiotics to prevent infection.

Natural / All-Natural

Natural products are regulated by the USDA to contain no artificial ingredients or preservatives. However, growth hormones and antibiotics are not restricted by this label. 

Quick Recap

As you can see there is a lot that goes into the food you eat. Remember these basic guidelines when determining if something is a healthy options for your body.

  1. Check the ingredients. If you don't know an ingredient on the label, google it! If it sounds like a chemical, it probably is and you're going to want to put it back on the shelf. Aim for products with short ingredient lists made with whole foods.

  2. Check the quality. When you can choose organic, pasture raised , grass fed- grass finished, non GMO, and animal products without hormones and antibiotics. Quality directly impacts the nutritional value of the food you're eating and ensures you're not getting any unwanted toxins.

  3. Check the numbers. If you are on a weight loss journey or trying to work towards a specific health goal, it's valuable to understand the macronutrient make up of different foods. Check to see how many carbs, proteins and fats are in the item. Remember to keep added sugars low and avoid trans fats!

The goal is not to be perfect with this, but to make sure the majority of what you're consuming on a daily basis isn't impacting your health negatively. The more you can get back to real, whole foods without labels the healthier you'll be!

Download your FREE Ingredient Label Cheat Sheet to take with you the next time you go to the store!

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