Confused By Food Labels? Here’s A Solution

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.

How to Assess Nutrition Labels

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.

Other posts you might like:

Be an Artificial Ingredient Detective

You Need To Be A Detective To Find These Hidden Ingredients

Snack Girl is getting old and her eyes are going. Actually, I blame this screen I am sitting in front of for my inability to read labels....


Three Reasons To Avoid Yoplait Greek Yogurt

Snack Girl really doesn't want to pick on General Mills (the owners of Yoplait), but I feel I must....

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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!!


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.

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.

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.

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

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!!!

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!

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.

everybody should try using the fooducate app ( 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.

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

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.

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.

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.

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?

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.

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.

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?

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

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??

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

Great post I totally agree with your tips! The stuff on the front is all just marketing play and the first ingredient plus the sugar content is usually where I start looking these days. Great advice.

When I'm scanning packages, in addition to checking the first ingredient and the sugar content (which I also do), I look at the amount of dietary fiber and the protein - if I'm going to get more than 10% of the DV of fiber and at least 5 grams of protein per serving, I'm likely to bend a little on the sugar (though I'd still try to keep it below, say, 30 grams). I glance at the fats to make sure it doesn't have hydrogenated oils, but otherwise the best literature I've found says consuming dietary fat doesn't MAKE you fat by itself, a whole host of factors in combination lead to weight gain, in the belly area in particular.

Good post, great food for thought!

Look at homemade recipe under chocolate covered Katie for pop tarts.

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

You'd be surprised that quite a few "sweet" products are high in sodium too!.

Sugar recommendations are no more than 6 tsp. (30 grams) a day for women and 9 tsp. (45 grams for men (not sure about children)of ADDED sugar. This is tough to determine because naturally occurring sugars (as in fruit, vegetables, milk products, etc)and added sugars are combined.

Well because I avoid gluten and sugar in any form label reading is a big deal. But my rule of thumb is..."If I can't cook it in my own kitchen than I don't buy it" which means zero processed foods!

R raisins better than cranberries

I like raisins but I was under the impression that cranberries were healthy 4 u

My mom always made cranberry sauce from cranberries in the bag

U have 2 eat, so I always eat healthy. And I like 2 drink vodka!!!!


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