Confused By Food Labels? Here’s A Solution

How to Assess Nutrition Labels

October 9, 2012   27 Comments

Last week, Snack Girl complained about hidden ingredients in her food (see: You Need To Be A Detective To Find These Hidden Ingredients). Now, I going to teach you some tricks.

Many people mentioned these toaster pastries when I wrote about PopTarts so I thought I would evaluate them. I was inspired by this question from Wendy:

The problem I have is feeling overwhelmed by all the things to look for in nutrition labels.

I feel my head swimming and I just want to throw in the towel and buy a bag of Tostitos and and eat the whole thing in one sitting...LOL

Yes, I want to by the FAMILY size Tostitos and eat the whole bag :)

Her e-mail inspired me to share my tips for assessing a food product quickly.

Tip #1: Ignore everything on the front of the package. These lovely Organic Nature’s Path Toaster Pastries not only have blueberries and the words “Organic” and “Made With Real Fruit” - there is a Robert Frost poem on the bottom of the box:

“You ought to have seen what I saw on my way
To the village, through Mortenson’s pasture today:
Blueberries as big as the end of your thumb,
Real sky-blue, and heavy, and ready to drum
In the cavernous pail of the first one to come!”

from “Blueberries” by Robert Frost

Just ignore everything, including great poetry, if you are trying to assess if this food is a good choice.

Tip #2: Look at the FIRST ingredient in the ingredients list. It will tell you the most about its relative health as opposed to another product. I always check to see if this is sugar. From the package, you might think it would be blueberries.

The first ingredient here is wheat flour and not sugar which is a good thing, BUT you have to notice that it doesn’t say WHOLE wheat flour. These means that these toaster pastries are not 100% whole wheat which is too bad. There is whole wheat flour added but it is the fifth ingredient. Blueberries, the theme for the box comes in at #11. Huh.

Tip #3: Check out the grams of sugar. For me, this is a big indicator if this is a TREAT or a healthy snack. Five grams of sugar is about 1 teaspoon.

Hello! 20 Grams of sugar! That means there are 4 teaspoons of sugar in every pastry. Wow! Now there are 28 grams of sugar in a regular Pop-Tart so you are saving yourself a bit here - but that is still a lot for breakfast.

Nature’s Path does write “A Treat You Can Feel Good About” on the package. Remember a few lines ago when I told you to ignore the package? This company is being truthful, actually, about their product. This is a treat.

For some of you, sodium will be important as well. I do keep that in mind when I am looking at savory food.

Just remember: ignore the label, look at the first ingredient, check the grams of sugar for a quick assessment.

Please share your tips for assessing nutrition labels.


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First 20 Comments: [ see all 27 ]

Thank you for this useful post. I forget if the order of the ingredients is by weight or volume. I also check for protein just in case. Would you speak a little about the different kinds of oil? Palm oil and palm kernel oil are very different I think...but the wisdom changes on oil all the time!
Can't wait to try the pumpkin pancakes this week. What a powerful punch!!
Jennie

on October 9, 2012

And the only reason sugar is not the first ingredient is because they have added 10 different kinds. I wish they had to list them by categories. Now I have to go google algin now to see if that's an 11th sugar.

on October 9, 2012

I think we are often fooled by the front of the package saying organic or real fruit. I think a lot of parents are buying snacks for their kids that are not as healthy as they think they are.Very Helpful post.

on October 9, 2012

This is a good reminder that just because it's organic, doesn't mean it is healthy. Companies are out to make money. Unfortunately alot of people don't educate themselves on the foods that they eat. Thanks for the great site.

on October 9, 2012

Thanks for this! It's a good lesson for me to use when shopping for healthy items to eat!

on October 9, 2012

No matter what, I can't find a healthy poptart unless I make my own!! Great post!! You can't let organic or a name of the product fool you!!!

on October 9, 2012

Super helpful. I might have been fooled by the poem :)
I always look at sugar and the fat breakdown. I used to obsess over sodium but now I look at that after fat & sugar.
What I need to get into the habit of doing is reading the list just like you posted - I always go to the chart and stop there.
Thank you!

on October 9, 2012

Thanks Lisa ! This helped me tremendously. It is difficult when they try to trick you into thinking its healthy. This puts things into perspective :-) Never knew the trick about the first ingredient..cant wait to try it out.

on October 9, 2012

everybody should try using the fooducate app (http://www.fooducate.com/). You can use it to scan the barcode on stuff you want to buy and it rates the item based on ingredients in it. They have a pretty good database and are mostly reliable with most of the ratings.

on October 9, 2012

So helpful. I always check the Fiber & Protein in a product as well.

on October 9, 2012

My rule is always: is that an ingredient that my grandma would have kept on hand in her kitchen? If not, it won't be in mine either? I don't think my grandma had any monocalcium phosphate lying around... or "blueberry flavor" for that matter.

on October 9, 2012

I would never buy these for me or my family. It's a pop tart in disguise. The word "organic" just means the ingredients they used are organic, but sugar is still sugar, wheat flour is still wheat flour, etc. The carb, calorie and sugar count is higher than any snack I would give to my kids. I might offer this as a dessert, but NEVER as a snack. The big thing people need to understand is that "organic" does not mean it is healthy food--just that the ingredients are organic. This is one of the ways food manufacturers try to trick consumers.

on October 9, 2012

If I can't pronounce it, I don't eat it. Unless the reason I can't pronounce it is because it's from a country whose language I don't speak.

on October 9, 2012

Thanks for this great post! I am religious about checking lables and rarely eat anything with more than 5g of sugar per serving. For the most part, I actually avoid anythign with more than 5 ingredients or ingredients i can't pronounce.

That said, sodium has been tricky for me. I always check the amount of sodium but I dont actually know what is reasonable. Any insight?

on October 9, 2012

Thanks for the useful Information. MY daughter has pre-diabetes, so I always look for the content of sugar, sodo, and of course calories. I am so surprise to find that many organic products have more calories, and/or sugar than the regular ones.

on October 9, 2012

Face it, processed foods really aren't that healthy. I am many years past the stage of life where time matters--retired, kids scattered around the globe, etc--so I completely skip this stuff, but I can remember what it is like for those with more complicated lives. If your life requires the expedience of this kind of food, consider some of the cold cereals that are equally expedient, low in sugar (or even without added sugar), and fresh fruit. Trying to find healthy food in whatever category it is that incorporates Pop Tarts is simple dooming yourself to frustration.

on October 9, 2012

Thanks for a great post! I have just became aware of the NuVal numbers. This number appears on the price tags on the store shelves. Not all products have been evaluated by this algorithm yet, but I am finding that most are. It is a quick way to reference the healthiest choice of a specific product. I find it extremely helpful when standing there puzzled in the bread aisle and even at the fish counter. Snack girl, I am wondering if you use this or are aware of it and I am wondering what you think?

on October 9, 2012

WOW! Thank you for the note of 5 grams of sugar is about 1 tsp!

on October 9, 2012

Thanks snack girl!! Knowing that 5 grams of sugar is a teaspoon is helpful. I never know how much sugar would be considered 'a lot' for one serving. Do you have any advice on that??

on October 10, 2012

I love that APPLES are before BLUEBERRIES when it's a blueberry pastry!

on October 10, 2012

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