Food & Nutrition

11 Ways You Never Realized You’re Reading Food Labels Wrong

Think those labels on your package are self-explanatory? Not so fast. Those word and numbers aren’t always what they appear.

You assume fat- and sugar-free products are healthy

iStock/john shepherd

Depending on your dietary needs, cutting back on sugar or fat could help you reach your health goals. But be careful: Reduced-fat products tend to have extra sodium or sugar, and lower sugar often means more fat or salt, says Libby Mills, MS, RDN, LDN, FAND, spokeswoman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “Whatever they’re taking out, they typically add something else to add flavor,” she says. Plus, you might actually find yourself more satisfied with a full-fat product. For instance, if just a small handful of regular potato chips kills your craving but you could polish off a family-sized bag of baked chips easily, stick with the fattier version. Here are more “healthy” foods you should actually avoid.

You don’t note the serving size


When you hunker down with a bag of chips, you could be blowing way past the recommended serving size, meaning you’re eating more calories and fat than you thought, says Jen Bruning, MS, RDN, LDN, spokeswoman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. For an easy, no-measure trick, she recommends noting the number of servings in a package, then eyeballing how much a serving would be, like half of a two-portion bag. Be extra careful with packages that look like a single serving. “Even with small items like candy bars, it’s important to see how many servings are in your hand,” she says. “Just because it can fit in your hand or you can eat it in one sitting doesn’t mean it fits one serving size by nutrition.” Use these portion control tricks to avoid calorie overload.

You think “all natural” and “organic” are the same


Certified organic products have gone through an application and been inspected by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to make sure they meet the criteria—organic plants don’t use synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides, and meats are from animals that eat organic feed and haven’t been given antibiotics or hormones. However, the label “all natural” doesn’t have such strict guidelines. “All natural doesn’t really mean a lot to us,” says Mills. “We know that by FDA standards it means they’ve been minimally processed, but to what degree that ‘minimally’ means to each manufacturer may be a little different.” Check instead for specific labels you care about, like antibiotic- or GMO-free. Here’s how to decode the trickiest terms on food labels.

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