Food labels part 5:
Putting it all together.


In this concluding Part 5, we’ll give you some tips and action steps to ensure you’re getting the most from your food labels.

In Parts 1-4 (click here to review parts 123, and 4) of this food labels article series, we looked at:

  • whether food labels actually help us be healthier;
  • whether food labels (especially calorie counts) have meaningful, useful information for us as health-conscious consumers;
  • how food labels can vary by region and food type;
  • whether manufacturers are honest and transparent on their food labels; and
  • what consumers actually do with food labels.

In this concluding Part 5, we’ll give you some tips and action steps to ensure you’re getting the most from your food labels.

Action step 1: Slow down

Take a minute to consider how you’re making buying decisions. Manufacturers depend on consumers being rushed, busy, inattentive, and impulsive.

Put your cell phone down, take 30 seconds to read a package, and focus a few moments longer than normal.

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Action step 2: Keep it real

One of the PN team members said it best:

“What’s a food label?”

What they meant: They buy whole foods that don’t have labels (except, perhaps, for that annoying little sticker on the produce, which never seems to peel off properly).

If you’re concerned about what’s in your food, stick to whole/unprocessed foods (this will also prevent more food packaging trash from entering the landfill). Eating real food saves you the time and effort of reading labels, and you don’t have any surprises.

If you want to check the nutrient content of a food, use the USDA nutrient database (or another relatively unbiased scientific database that does its own analysis).


Action step 3: Prioritize ingredients over calories

If a food does have a label, then look at the ingredients list first.  If the ingredients suck, it doesn’t really matter much what the calorie, fat and sugar grams are on the label.

When looking at ingredients, look for short lists of things you recognize. For instance, on a container of oatmeal you should see: Ingredients: oats.

If you can’t pronounce and/or draw the ingredients in a product – there is a good chance you may not want to put it in your body.  Once you are familiar with the products you buy that have labels, you won’t need to check them any more.

Action step 4: Comparison shop

If comparing two similar items, make your choice based on two criteria:

  • more of the stuff you want (e.g., protein and fiber)
  • less of the stuff you don’t want (e.g., sugar and salt).

Other things to look for:

Fair Trade. Most important for foods that come from warm regions, such as coffee, chocolate, and tropical fruits, since these are likely to be regions where farmers don’t get a fair wage for their labors, or work under safe conditions. It it’s possible to buy Fair Trade, do it.

Organic. If it’s possible to buy organic, do it.

Local. Check the country of origin.  If it’s possible to buy local (or closer to home), do it. (Double points if you can buy the food from the person who grew and/or processed it.)

Packaging. It it’s possible to buy a food without a bunch of extra packaging, do it. Do you really need to put those three apples into a plastic produce bag?

Action step 5: Do it yourself

If you find a product interesting, take a picture of the label.  Then you can go home and figure out how to make it yourself from real ingredients.

This is a great opportunity to be creative and learn a new cooking skill. Plus, you usually save some money making it yourself.

Action step 6: Don’t believe the front of the package

The more a product is trying to convince you it’s healthy or that you should buy it, the more suspicious you should be.  Real food does not have to convince you it’s nutritious. Kale knows it’s all that.

Action step 7: Get beyond the numbers

Don’t worry about things like calories so much. They won’t help you as much as you expect.

If you want to get healthier and leaner, move beyond calorie counting.  Recognize that even “unbiased” numbers may not be 100% precise or useful.

Action step 8: Use common sense

If a food says “heart-healthy” and this appeals to you… turn the package over and check out the ingredients. Does the ingredient list match the “heart-healthy” claim?

Action step 9: Set your deal-breakers and “minimums”

Establish your baseline. What makes food a no-go for you?

If your deal-breakers are on the food label, you don’t eat that food.  Some ideas from the PN team include::

  • Hydrogenated/partially hydrogenated oils (source of trans fats)
  • High fructose corn syrup (not necessarily because it’s handled much differently than other sugars, but it usually indicates a non-nutritious food)
  • Added sugars (including hidden sources like syrups)
  • Artificial colors (example: FD&C Blue #1)
  • Canned items not labeled BPA free
  • Atlantic or farmed salmon (instead of wild caught)
  • Products from China (which has recently been busted for many food safety violations, such as melamine in baby formula and heavy metals in various foods and herbal preparations)
  • Animal ingredients
  • Gluten
  • Non-organic
  • Nitrates/nitrites
  • High sodium

Obviously, you can choose the “baseline” and “deal-breakers” that suit you, your nutritional level, and your own needs.

No matter what you decide, what’s most important is that you are in charge of your food choices.

As a consumer and “food fighter”, YOU have the power – and now, the knowledge – to make healthy choices.

Use that power wisely.


Click here to view the information sources referenced in this article.

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