Why you should be reading food labels

Sunrise Senior Living  |  October 4, 2016

Eating well starts with selecting the right foods at the grocery store or market. Here's how to use food labels to learn more about nutrition and avoid unhealthy items.

Food labels come with a wealth of information that aims to inform consumers so they can make the best nutritional choices. Sometimes food manufacturers will plaster words like "health" or "low-fat" on the front of the package that can be proven false using a nutrition label.

The ingredients
When gauging whether or not a food is healthy or not, the best place to look is the ingredients list. A long list of ingredients containing complicated terms and scientific jargon may be a red flag.

For example, the American Heart Association reported that there are a number of terms food companies will use for sugar. An item may be said to contain high-fructose corn syrup, glucose and a host of other ingredients, in an attempt to trick consumers. Something may be "low fat" or "low sodium" but full of other additives instead. Often a "low calorie" snack that tastes like the regular version really is too good to be true.

When at the grocery store, try to select foods that have relatively  simple ingredients listed. For more complicated items, make sure most of the words are familiar or at least understandable. This is a good way to avoid empty calories, trans fats and sneaky sugars that can undermine your diet.

The proportions
The next most important consideration when reading a food label is serving size and daily value percentages. Nourish Interactive found that often consumers will neglect listed serving sizes, which can make it difficult to accurately assess what is being offered. A low-calorie or low-salt item may only achieve that label because it has such unrealistic serving sizes.

Once you identify the serving size, you can begin to make more accurate projections about the sugar, salt and caloric content of a given item. This is important to note while at the grocery store, but also when at home. The standard food label uses a 2,000 calorie diet as a gauge for listed proportions and daily values. For older adults, this may not be an accurate or fair expectation. Discuss with a doctor or nutritionist about more targeted calorie counts and nutritional intake. This way you can assess the information on a nutrition label with a more targeted approach.

At the same time, you can also uncover foods that carry surprising health benefits. Some items may be loaded with calcium, iron and other vitamins or minerals. Use nutrition labels to avoid unhealthy items as well as find beneficial ones.

Being mindful
As people become more health conscious, some food manufacturers use buzz words like "energy-boosting" or "diet" hat can confuse shoppers. Over time, being mindful and proactive about the contents of the food you buy helps you become more knowledgeable and in control of daily and long-term nutrition.