I confess: I'm afraid of nutrition labels. Partly because I'm loathe to learn that the box of crackers I intend to buy (and promptly eat) is actually a bomb of trans fats and sodium, but more so because a label can be a confusing, time-consuming read. The latter is why I made a brave move and recently hit the store aisles with Lisa Lanzano, MS, RD, nutritionist and owner of Essential Nutrition in Boulder, Colorado, and talked with Sue Moores, RD, a nutrition consultant in St. Paul, Minnesota, and spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association.

Both encouraged me to break down the Nutrition Facts panel found on packaged products into manageable chunks. “Don't get paralyzed by it all,” Moores says. The plan: Start with one type of food, such as energy bars, and get to know the most pertinent information on those labels. Settle on a few go-to brands. Next tackle breads. Then yogurt. And so on. Armed with this method, I discovered that interpreting nutrition labels and making healthy choices isn't such a complex undertaking after all.

10 quick tips to get started

  1. Ingredients are listed highest to lowest by weight, so the items at the top of the list make up the bulk of the food. Look for ingredients lists containing predominantly unprocessed, whole foods.
  2. A lengthy ingredients list may be a sign that the product has unneeded extras like artificial preservatives, particularly if you don't recognize the terms. (To learn the names used for additives and preservatives, go to CSPI's Food Safety Website.)
  3. When considering serving size, keep in mind that packages often contain more than a single serving. You may have to double, or even triple, the amounts of everything on the label to get an accurate picture of what's in a single container.
  4. Meals should add up to approximately 600 calories. Snacks should be around 200 calories.
  5. The recommended daily value (often shortened to DV) is 65 grams of fat for a 2,000-calorie-a-day diet. If a food has 20 grams of fat per serving, consider whether it's worth eating almost a third of your daily fat allotment in one serving.
  6. Don't just look at the trans fats number. Avoid all products containing shortening or any kind of partially hydrogenated oil in the ingredients list.
  7. The upper recommended DV for sodium is 2,400 mg a day. Look for low-sodium versions of your favorite foods.
  8. The food should have a minimum of 2.5 grams of fiber per serving. To maximize intake, look for whole grains in the ingredients list: “whole” (as in whole-wheat flour) or “oat” (as in oatmeal).
  9. Divide grams of sugar by four to get the number of teaspoons of sugar in one serving — a clearer visual. No more than 10 percent of your daily calories should come from added sugars.
  10. Know your daily protein needs: Divide your weight in pounds by 2.2 to get your weight in kilograms. Multiply that number by 0.8. For a 150-pound woman (68 kilograms), that comes out to about 55 grams.

Confused by label acronyms such as DV (daily value) and RDA (recommended dietary allowance)? For a complete explanation of these and other dietary acronyms, read "What are Daily Values?"

Next Page: Reading Energy bar, cereals, cookie labels

Energy bars
(also cereals, cookies)

Step 1→ Ingredients

Our first stop is the popular energy bar section. “As lifestyles get busier, people grab these in place of meals,” Lanzano says. She immediately flips over a package to see if the ingredients are nutritionally sound and predominantly whole foods — meaning real foods in forms as close to their natural state as possible, such as nuts and dried fruits. In a worthy energy bar, the first ingredient — or at least the second — should be a whole grain (oats, wheat) or protein (nuts, whey), Lanzano says, not sugar. Also, beware that various types of sugars — which can have names such as high-fructose corn syrup, sucrose, evaporated cane juice, and brown rice syrup — might appear several times in a single ingredients list. “The sugar [in its various forms] might not be front and center,” says Moores. “But when you add together all the times it occurs, it would be higher in the ingredients list.”

Step 2→ Sugars

The next step is to determine the amount of sugar, which falls under Total Carbohydrate on the label. To get a clearer mental picture of just how much sugar is in the item, Lanzano recommends dividing the grams of sugar by four, which equals the number of teaspoons in a serving. My favorite energy bar has 21 grams of sugar. That means the one-serving bar has — surprise! — more than 5 teaspoons of sugar. Although eating that much sugar in a sitting doesn't sound appetizing, it's not uncommon, says Lanzano. But it's not advisable: Added sugar intake shouldn't exceed 10 percent of daily calories, or 12 teaspoons (48 grams) per day for the average 2,000-calorie diet, she says. This includes the refined sugar found in bars, cereals, soy milks, soft drinks, and so on, not just the sugar you add to your coffee. (Note: Not everyone's needs match the average 2,000-calorie daily intake. To determine your requirements, go to bcm.edu/cnrc/caloriesneed.htm and type in your sex, height, weight, age, and activity level.)

The quantity listed on the label doesn't tell the whole story, either. “Sugar amounts don't distinguish added sugar from natural sugar,” says Lanzano. In fact, added sugars and naturally occurring sugars (such as those in milk) appear in the same number on the label. And your added limit doesn't include the sugars found naturally in, say, fruit. For example, dried fruit, such as dates or fig paste found in some energy bars, has a substantial amount of natural sugar, yet its fiber slows down absorption. Other less-processed sugars may have some benefit — brown rice sweeteners may include fiber; honey has beneficial antioxidants and boosts immunity; and molasses has calcium, potassium, iron, and magnesium — but any concentrated sugar source can spike blood sugar and lead to energy crashes, warns Lanzano. If you have to choose one, go with a fruit or unprocessed sugar source, such as agave nectar, which has a lower glycemic index and so metabolizes more slowly than other sugars.

Step 3→ Protein

Because almost any energy bar contains sugar, the next Nutrition Facts item to scrutinize is protein, a nutrient that can help stabilize blood sugar and provide sustained energy. My brand of choice contains 9 grams of protein per serving (mostly from soy, judging by the ingredients), which may not sound like a lot, but actually meets a whopping 18 percent of my daily needs. To calculate your daily protein needs in grams, see the instructions in “10 Quick Tips to Get Started.”

Previous Page: 10 Quick Nutrition Label Tips
Next Page: Bread, Chip, Cracker, Pasta labels

Breads (also chips, crackers, pasta)

Step 1→ Ingredients

“People often think they're eating whole-grain bread, but they're not,” says Lanzano. We look at a so-called “multigrain” bread and find that the first ingredient is organic unbleached wheat flour. “That's white flour,” says Lanzano. “It's been stripped of fiber.” Soluble fiber — in oats, brown rice, and beans — reduces cholesterol, and insoluble fiber, which is found in such foods as whole-wheat bread, brussels sprouts, and carrots, has been associated with decreased cardiovascular risk. To maximize your fiber intake, look for the first word in the bread, crackers, or other food — it should be whole (as in whole-wheat flour) or oat (as in oatmeal).

Step 2→ Dietary Fiber

Another way to gauge fiber: Look at the fiber number. Yes, it sounds obvious, but many people, like me, don't know what the amounts mean. The recommended DV is 25 grams a day for a 2,000-calorie diet. “But the average person gets half that amount,” says Moores. “Most adults should aim for 30 grams.” A food with 2.5 grams or more of fiber per serving is considered a good source, according to Moores. A food with 5 grams or more per serving, such as beans or whole-grain products with added bran, is excellent.

Step 3→ Trans Fat

Eating chemically created trans fats, which have been processed to be more shelf stable, can lead to stroke and heart disease. They raise bad LDL and lower good HDL cholesterol, so avoid them entirely. But don't necessarily trust that “zero trans fats” label: Although the government requires food manufacturers to list amounts in the Nutrition Facts, companies can put zero if a product contains less than 1 gram trans fat per serving. Even a little trans fat can harm your heart and slow your metabolism, says Moores, so I make sure my chosen breads (and crackers and chips for that matter) don't have shortening or partially hydrogenated vegetable oil in the ingredients lists. “If you ate 20 crackers instead of the recommended 8 for a serving, you're getting more trans fats. That's how it adds up. If you eat five foods like that a day, you could get into trouble,” says Moores.

Previous Page: Energy bar, cereals, cookie labels
Next Page: Yogurt and dairy labels

(also other dairy products)

Step 1→ Total Fat

Interpreting fat, Lanzano says, depends on my health goals. For heart health, the quality of fat is key. All Nutrition Facts panels break down total fat by saturated and trans types. Because the saturated fats found in most animal products (including meat and dairy) raise bad LDL cholesterol, eat less than 20 grams of animal-derived saturated fat each day.

If you're more interested in managing your weight than protecting your heart, you don't necessarily have to opt for low-fat or nonfat yogurt all the time. Full-fat yogurts certainly have more calories and fat than nonfat varieties; the brand we examined had 60 extra calories and 6 grams saturated fat, compared with zero in the nonfat yogurt. But compounds in saturated animal fats, such as conjugated linoleic acids (CLA), step up metabolism, which can lead to weight loss, says Lanzano. “I'm not afraid of saturated fat in yogurt because most people won't overeat yogurt,” she says. “I'm more concerned about people eating too much steak.”

Step 2→ Sugars

Lanzano picks up a plain yogurt, and I choose lemon. The lemon has 35 grams of sugar, and the plain contains 15 grams. I ask why plain has any sugar. Lanzano explains that milk inherently contains lactose — a sugar. To measure the lemon-flavored yogurt, we subtract the natural lactose (15 grams) to get the amount of added sugar (20 grams). Using the quick calculation Lanzano taught me in the energy bar aisle, I find that a serving — about a cup — contains 5 teaspoons of sugar. Instead of getting this sugar-filled flavored variety, Lanzano recommends choosing plain yogurt and putting in fresh or frozen blueberries or fruit preserves to sweeten my yogurt and add antioxidants.

Previous Page: Yogurt and dairy labels
Next Page: Soup, pasta sauces, frozen meals labels

Soups (also pasta sauces, frozen meals)

Step 1→ Serving Size and Servings Per Container

As with energy bars, we first examine the ingredients to make sure the soups contain recognizable whole foods. Next we look at servings per container. The typical can of soup may look as if it contains just one serving, but it actually includes two.

Step 2→ Calories

If you're like me, half a can is only half a meal, in which case it's necessary to double all the numbers on the Nutrition Facts panel, especially calories and sodium. Many Americans eat or drink more calories than they use and then pack on unwanted pounds. Based on a 2,000-calorie diet, meals should add up to approximately 600 calories, with one 200-calorie snack per day, according to Lanzano. A whole can of the lentil-vegetable soup I'm eyeing has 300 calories, so to make it a meal, Lanzano tells me I can add a bit more food — a slice of whole-grain bread or a piece of fruit.

Step 3→ Sodium

As for sodium, it should be a lot higher on everyone's no-no list, according to Moores. You probably can guess the reason: Too much sodium can lead to high blood pressure. And the average American eats about 2,900-4,300 mg of sodium, or about 6-10 grams of salt, every day. The upper recommended DV is 2,400 mg a day. The otherwise healthy lentil-vegetable soup has 680 grams per serving, so about 1,360 grams for the can. Not good. “About 75 percent to 80 percent of the sodium we get in our diets each day comes from processed foods, not the salt we add ourselves,” says Moores. “You'll have more of an impact on your salt intake if you pay attention to the packaged foods you buy rather than just putting down the salt shaker.” Luckily, there's a low-sodium version of my chosen soup, which contains half the amount of the regular type.

Pamela Bond is a frequent contributor to Delicious Living.

Confused by label acronyms such as DV (daily value) and RDA (recommended dietary allowance)? For a complete explanation of these and other dietary acronyms, read "What are Daily Values?"