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How To Decode & Understand Food Labels (in 5 Seconds)

An employee guides you to Aisle 15. You walk down the row. Halfway through, you spot the snacks and look up in bewilderment. They have it all right. Dozens of varieties, brands, and different options.

You’ll walk away with just one product out of the lot, but which? You do a quick scan, desperate for a recognizable logo to rescue from the agony of decision. Nothing.

Choose carefully. Two products with similar labels may contain very different contents. One may leave you feeling great, energized, and happy. While shortly after consuming the other you feel lethargic, hungry, and grumpy. This post will be your guide to easily sleuthing out the healthiest product among dozens in little time.

Food Labels & Nutrition Facts Explained

How to Read Food & Nutrition Labels Example
Three important metrics to compare packaged foods against.

In a literal sense, a food label is meant to list all relevant and necessary background information describing food. The Nutrition Facts is a breakdown of the main nutrients inside. The FDA conveniently requires manufacturers to list the macro and micronutrients. Including fat, carbohydrates, and protein in both grams and as a percentage (based on the US government’s “healthy” food pyramid). Nutrition Facts also lists vitamin content. For our intents, you can ignore all percentages since they’re likely inaccurate for you.

Pro tip: the highest-quality food don't need labels. Fresh fruits and vegetables should just have a barcode. Click To Tweet

Labels are mostly useless, bombarding you with buzzword-laden marketing claims, bizarre five-syllable chemical names, and ridiculous portion sizes. The back panel is a cryptic legal requirement. You’re left eyeing beautiful labeling, familiar brands, and generic certifications.

But food labels aren’t complete junk. There are three things I pay attention to:

  • Serving size
  • Macros (check for hidden sugar)
  • Ingredients (watch for kryptonite)

That’s it. I ignore the rest. I cut through the B.S and move on. Healthy shopping isn’t easy. These basics will quickly become second nature.

1. Go Straight to The Ingredient List

Skipping the front label seems counterintuitive. How will you know the brand, product details, mission statement, and long list of product accolades? You don’t. Best to avoid any marketing bias before seeing what you’d eat.

Companies get away with label slight-of-hand. But the ingredients list tells the true story. Well, mostly. Manufacturers can hide certain ingredients under generic terms like “natural flavors” and “proprietary blends”.

Pro tip: parentheses after an ingredient indicate that the ingredient takes multiple others to make. For example: "Soy Sauce (Water, Wheat, Soybeans)". Click To Tweet

But most ingredients show up in the ingredient list. Best of all?

The ingredients list isn’t sorted alphabetically, but rather by quantity. Your product is primarily made of the first ingredient. Followed by the second ingredient and so on. So if the first three ingredients are refined vegetable oils and sugar, the food is junk.

Always scan through the first 5 food ingredients as they generally make up the majority of the product. Click To Tweet

2. Ignore Front Panel Advertisements

The label is meant to draw you in, capture attention, and elicit an emotional response. That’s why we skipped it first. Marketers are paid handsomely to hack your emotions. They help manufacturers choose psychologically-ideal colors, fonts, layouts, and graphics. All designed to hijack your decision process.

Front-label advertisements are weaponized. Pay little attention until after you’ve completed the other checks.

3. Always Check The Serving Sizes

The FDA does not standardize servings sizes, so manufacturers get to decide. Sneaky marketers use unrealistically tiny serving sizes to make the Nutrition Facts look better. For example, who uses just 1 tablespoon of sauce?

To compare apples to apples, use some basic math. We can use the least common dominator to compare products. What does this look like in practice?

Sauce Comparison small
I love sauces. Here is a recent example (neither ingredients list is great).

For reference, I cook with the same amount of both sauces. Therefore, the serving sizes should be the same, which they’re often not.

The less sugary choice?

  • Sauce A: (15-gram serving and 4 grams of sugar) x 4 = 16 grams of sugar in a 60-gram serving
  • Sauce B: 60-gram serving and 5 grams of sugar = 5 grams of sugar in a 60-gram serving

We multiply by the first option by four to make the serving sizes consistent. Sauce B is far lower in sugar despite the label. Comparing and standardizing serving size between products is key, even if only ballparked.

It’s not always so clear cut. Sometimes a product will have less sugar and more fat than the others. Or more calories and carbs. Macronutrients have their place, and which you should choose comes down to a second factor.

4. Watch For Marketing Terms

Safely ignore most of the claims boasted on the cleverly-designed label. The one exception is third-party certifications. Those are accurate.

Deceptive terms come in two flavors:

  • Meaningless: phrases like “natural” actually aren’t regulated. Manufacturers freely toss it on anything and everything.
  • Unnecessary: chickens don’t naturally eat a vegetarian diet. So “vegetarian-fed” eggs aren’t better. Actually, they’ll likely lack certain nutrients.

Legal loopholes and unethical marketing have rendered the following phrases nearly useless:

  • Flavoring (natural & artificial)
  • Gluten-Free
  • Enriched
  • Whole Grains
  • Low-Carb
  • Low-Fat
  • Natural
  • Vegetarian-fed
  • Omega-enhanced
  • Fortified

More important is the ingredients list.

5. Kryptonite Ingredients

Certain ingredients are metabolic poison. Labels with the following food will age you, wrinkle your skin, and make you fat. I immediately ditch food containing appreciable amounts of these.

Industrial “Vegetable” Oils

How well do you know your oils? A good rule of thumb:

Consume the oils which logically should be fatty. Click To Tweet

Avocado oil — yes. Cottonseed oil — probably not.

These high-PUFA oils denature when cooked. Heat transforms them into nasty free-radical inflammatory cocktails:

  • Corn oil
  • Cottonseed oil
  • Safflower oil
  • Peanut oil
  • Soybean oil
  • Canola oil
  • Sunflower oil
  • Hydrogenated oils*

*The very worst oil you can find on a label. Hydrogenated oils are a synonym of trans-fats. Products containing 0.5 grams of trans fat per serving can claim to be trans fat free on the label.

Sadly, this limits most packaged foods. Manufacturers cut costs by using the cheapest oils possible. No 30-day-cleanse will remove them.

Your body will use these damaged oils in the structural membrane of new cells for years. Like building a house on a foundation made of styrofoam, eventually, it’ll come back to haunt you.

I'd rather eat 1 cup of sugar than 1/2 cup of processed and heated vegetable oil. Click To Tweet

These oils are one reason that people following the “restaurant-food diet” quickly gain weight.

Sugar Synonyms

“It’s not the added sugar you know that’s the issue. It’s the (hidden) added sugar you don’t know.”

— Unknown

Refined sugar doesn’t belong in your diet. A little won’t kill you. Especially if you’re physically active. Even then, immunoprotective and anti-allergenic honey and natural sweeteners are better. Other great low-glycemic alternatives like monk fruit extract, stevia, and erithyritol sweeten just as effectively.

Although the average American consumes three times the WHO’s recommendation, sugar isn’t as evil as industrial seed oils. Unlike bad oils, you can burn off excess sugar with physical exercise.

On labels, sugars are the ingredients usually ending in “-ose”. Or that mention syrup. Such as:

  • Sucrose
  • Glucose
  • Fructose
  • Dextrose
  • Maltose
  • Glucose/glucose syrup
  • Barley malt/barley malt syrup
  • Rice syrup
  • Corn syrup
  • HFCS
  • Cane juice

Minimize these whenever possible.

Preservatives, Flavors, Additives, and Other Chemicals

Today’s foods last shockingly long. Even supermarket apples stay fresh an entire year after picked. Household pantry staples are another story. New chemicals make them last indefinitely.

Food chemicals have largely skipped safety testing. Take vinegar and baking soda for example. Each is used in cooking and produces predictable effects. But combined, they make a volcano. To date, no studies have investigated how the 10+ chemicals in most foods interact with each other.

This list is by no means comprehensive, but it covers some basic food chemicals to avoid:

  • MSG
  • Soy Lecithin
  • Glycerin Monostearate
  • Potassium Stearate
  • Sodium Stearate
  • Calcium Stearate
  • Calcium Stearoyl Lactylate (CSL)
  • Sodium stearoyl lactylate (SSL)
  • Polyglycerol Polyricinoleate (PGPR)
  • Mono Propylene Glycol
  • Glycerol Triacetate
  • Polysorbate 80
  • Carboxymethylcellulose (Cellulose gum, CMC)
  • Sucralose (Splenda)
  • Aspartame (NutraSweet)
  • Bisphenol-A (BPA), bisphenol-S (BPS), and bisphenol-F (BPF)

I don’t expect you to memorize these. I don’t know them all.

Common Food Label Questions

How do you compare food labels?

To compare food labels, start by checking serving sizes. You’ll have to do some basic math to standardize them to the same serving size. Once converted, check sugar content. Finally, scan the first 5 items on the ingredients list. All else equal, choose the product with fewer chemicals and better oils/fats.

How do you tell if there is a little or a lot of a nutrient in a food?

The easiest way to check if there’s a lot of a specific vitamin or mineral is to look at the RDA which is calculated for the average person. In terms of specific ingredients, check the ingredients panel which is ordered by concentration. The first 3-5 items generally make up most of the product.

Choosing the Best Nutritious Food

You arrive at the grocery store to grab three things. But 20 brands produce seemingly identical products. One says natural, another claims to be plant-based, and another lists an organic certification. The prices vary between products.

So how do you choose between multiple options?

Skip the shiny labels and go straight for the back:

  1. Check the serving sizes
  2. Avoid the kryptonite ingredients

By paying attention to the type of oils used, sugar content, and food chemicals, you can enjoy without wondering if you made the healthy choice. It need not take long:

In five seconds flat I can compare three foods, pick the healthiest option and discard the rest. Click To Tweet

Do you have a process to methodically evaluate “junk foods”?

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