Breaking Down Food Labels

cooking food labels grocery tips plant based wfpb whole food

Trying to decipher food labels can feel like a major chore. But, as we seek to make informed decisions about what we put into our own and our kids’ bodies, understanding food labels is essential!

Today I break down how to approach many of the most important categories on food labels.  My goal is to help demystify the words and numbers into something more digestible so that you can make the decision that makes most sense for your family.

Because I’m all about the “plant-based, whole foods as much as possible” life, I have to put a plug in for prioritizing eating, cooking, and serving foods that don’t NEED an ingredient list whenever possible. Single ingredient foods make list a lot simpler in more ways than one. Then, you can avoid the food label drama for the most part. But, for the times when you do need to evaluate packaged foods, I hope this guide helps along the way.

Food Label Reading Tips

  1. Ditch Ingredients: Before we jump into deciphering food labels, the best thing you can do is to avoid foods that require labels + ingredient lists as much as possible. Eating close to the food's natural form = best nutritional bang for the bite!

  2. Don’t believe the hype: Assume the words on the front of the package are ONLY trying to get you to buy the product. Words like "all natural" or "healthy" are used for marketing. Turn that package over and read about it for yourself.

  3. Read the ingredient list: Ingredient list is in order of largest to smallest component in food. If you can't pronounce or have no idea what it is, often best to avoid! The shorter the list, the better (1 ingredient = a whole food = winning)!

  4. Check out the fat content: You'll see grams of fat per serving size (don't forget to multiply if you're eating more than 1 serving). Try to keep total fat per serving less than 2 to 3 grams. Avoid trans fats and limit saturated fats. Skip cholesterol by eating plant-based foods! We need absolutely need healthy sources of fat in our diets - for kids and adults. It's always best to get your fat from whole food sources, like avocado, nuts, seeds, and olives, as much as possible. 

  5. Evaluate the sodium: Most dietary sodium hides in packaged foods. We don't actually need to add salt to our food - there is enough naturally in whole plant foods for optimal bodily function for most people. So, less is more! Milligrams of sodium per serving should be less than calories per serving to stay under 2000 mg per day. For example, if a serving size is 250 calories, sodium per serving should be 250 mg or less.

  6. Just say added sugar: Limiting sugar is tough. It is in most processed foods (everywhere from condiments to crackers and beyond). Sugar also has many aliases (fructose, sucrose, cane sugar, molasses, etc). Avoid sugar being in the top 3-5 ingredients (or at all, if possible). Good news is that food labels now highlight "added sugar;" keep added sugar as close to 0 as you can!

  7. Find the fiber: Our bodies LOVE fiber and it loves us right back! Find it, eat it. Aim for at least 2-3 grams of fiber per serving (but, more the better). Great ways to boost your fiber: choose fruits, beans, veggies, nuts, seeds & whole, intact grains over refined ones. Whole grain buzz words: whole wheat, whole oats, sprouted, stone ground. Refined grain buzz words: bleached, enriched, white flour/rice.

What do you tend to pay extra attention to when you’re reading food labels? Let me know in the comments!