Four things to know when reading food labels

September 29, 2012

Q: I try to eat healthy but sometimes find it difficult to shop because the food labels are confusing. Do you have any suggestions on what I should be looking for when reading the label so that I can make better choices? Should I look only at how much fat is in a product, or are there other things to consider before making my decisions?

A: Trying to find a healthy snack at the grocery store can be like searching for a needle in a haystack if you don’t know how to read food labels but if you’re armed with the right information you can make better choices and maintain a healthier lifestyle. Here are four things to consider when making your choices.


Everyone knows that sugar is bad for your health as well as your waistline, but knowing how much you can eat and how to identify it is a completely different story. Most experts consider a product that contains 10 grams or more per serving high, and to put thing in perspective, the average soda has 40-50 grams per can. To make matters worse, there are more than 50 words used to describe sugar, such as corn syrup, cane juice, fructose, fruit juice concentrate, maltose, sucrose, glucose and syrup. In fact, any word that ends in “ose” should be considered suspect. Learn to identify these sugars and how much each product contains, and you will be well on your way to making better choices.


Salt occurs naturally in foods and is essential in small amounts, but it can cause water retention, high blood pressure and heart disease if you eat too much. That’s why it’s important to avoid processed and packaged foods that use sodium and preservatives to increase shelf life. The recommended daily amount of sodium intake is between 1,500-2,300 mg per day depending on your activity level. A good rule of thumb is to limit products to about 250 mg per serving. Remember, processed foods are loaded with sodium, and it doesn’t take long to rack up large amounts of salt. For example, eating just 15 medium-sized pretzels will flood your veins with 1715 mg of sodium, so make your choices wisely, and reduce the amount of sodium if you are taking in too much.


The ingredients list on the nutrition panel can be confusing because it may list dozens of different things, but it’s important to remember that the first two or three ingredients are what the product is primarily made of, and the ones at the end of the label are usually included in small amounts. Also look for key words that symbolize healthier choices, such as whole grain, oatmeal, whole wheat and rye, and stay away from unhealthy key words like hydrogenated oil, high-fructose corn syrup and enriched white flour.

Serving size

Always look for how many servings are in each package. Many labels will list their product as having a large number of servings even though it is packaged in a small container. A good example would be if a small box of cookies has 3 grams of fat per serving and there are 15 servings in each box, guess what? If you eat the whole box in one sitting, you just consumed a total of 45 grams of fat.

The next time you’re at the grocery store, take the time to compare food labels, and you will surprised at how easy it is to make better choices. All it takes is a little patience and the right knowledge.

  • Chris Antonio is a personal trainer and former world-class weightlifter. He has been lifting for more than 20 years and has trained a wide variety of clients ranging from All-American athletes to the average person trying to get into shape. To send a question to the Ask the Trainer column, email Chris at or check out

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