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How to Read Food and Supplement Nutrition Labels

Most of us know we shouldn’t judge people or things by what’s on the outside. It’s usually what’s on the inside that counts! But when it comes to food and supplement labels, the outside matters a lot, too. How else are you supposed to know what to choose? The problem is that oftentimes, it can be difficult to know how those labels should inform your decision-making process when shopping.

Consider, if you will, the carton of low-fat milk in your dairy aisle. Upon first glance, it would be reasonable to assume that this milk would be a healthier choice than whole-fat milk. But experts aren’t so sure. Some studies have shown that for some people, whole milk might be the better choice1 than low-fat milk. One study even found that people who consumed lower amounts of dairy fat were at higher risk for obesity2 than those who consumed higher amounts of dairy fat. We wouldn’t blame you if this was something you were a little surprised to learn.

The surprises don’t stop there. The grocery store is full of tricky decisions. Not only is it important to know exactly what the labels on your food and supplements mean, but it’s also important to know why they matter.

What Do the Labels on Food and Supplements Mean?

When deciding which food and supplements you should pick up at the store or online, it’s important to fully consider what’s on the front of the label as well as what’s on the back.

On the front of the package, the label will tell you all the basic information about the product, and you may also see the buzzy words “natural” or “organic.” But do you know the difference between these two words? It can be tricky!

According to a 2016 Consumer Reports study, more people purchase foods with the word “natural” on the label than people purchase foods with the word “organic.”3 But “organic” and “natural” are far from the same. The term “organic” means the product has no antibiotics, no artificial colors, no GMOs, and no synthetic pesticides, while the term “natural” usually only means that nothing artificial or synthetic has been included in or added to the product.4 So if you’re looking to make purchases that were produced without the use of pesticides, steer clear of the word “natural” on labels and look instead for the word “organic” instead.

Another word to look out for on labels? Healthy. The FDA defines foods that are “healthy”5 as those that “are not low in total fat, but have a fat profile makeup of predominantly mono and polyunsaturated fats; or contain at least ten percent of the Daily Value per reference amount customarily consumed of potassium or vitamin D. But while there is FDA guidance in place around labeling foods as “healthy,”5 the guidance is only a recommendation or a suggestion, and it is not required. So while some companies might be looking out for your wellbeing by following these recommendations, others may not be!

After you’ve read the front of the labels, next you’ve got to look at some of the smaller print on the back. And you thought the front of the label was tricky! You likely already know the back is where you’ll find the nutritional information as well as the ingredients. It’s a lot to take in, especially if you’re in a hurry. The FDA’s article on how to use and understand nutrition facts6 is a great resource for making healthy decisions for yourself and your family.

As for the ingredients list, it’s good to know that there are several words that can be used for sugar, sodium, and trans fat. If you’re looking to avoid sugar, the American Heart Association recommends looking for words like corn syrup, agave nectar, and barley malt syrup, and more.7 Similarly with sodium, they recommend looking out for words like sodium benzoate and disodium. And lastly, if looking to avoid trans fat, look for words like hydrogenated oil.

Why Is It Important to Understand What’s on Food Labels?

The level of importance of food and supplement labels varies from person to person because everyone has different needs and priorities. It can also vary depending on what kinds of food and supplements you’re considering. For example, someone who values organic produce but is on a tight budget might consider limiting their organic grocery list to those foods that have the highest pesticide residue8 to help keep costs down. Other people might make purchasing decisions based on a personal or family history of cancer,9 high blood pressure,10 heart disease,11 obesity12, or diabetes.13 Be sure to consult your physician if you’re unsure what foods and supplements will support your optimal health!

What About Supplement Labels?

It’s not just food labels that are important to read and understand, either. These days, most people rely on supplements to fulfill all of their nutritional needs and goals, and this means reading supplement labels is just as important. So, what should you look for when deciding on the right supplements for you?

  • Suggested Use
    Supplements are often most effective when taken in specific ways, but sometimes this can be tricky. For example, iron supplements should not be taken with dairy. Be sure to learn exactly how your supplements should be taken prior to purchasing them.
  • Serving Size
    It’s important to note how many pills you should take every day to reach your optimum level.
  • Other Ingredients
    These are the ingredients that, while important, are not the most active ingredients so they are listed separately. However, they are still a part of your regular routine and should therefore be considered.
  • "Does Not Contain"
    This section of supplement labels is important because it specifies which potentially harmful substances are not included in the supplements you take on a regular basis. Things like gluten, artificial colors, and soy can all be detrimental to your health, especially depending on various sensitivities.

Whether your goal is to lower your blood pressure or cholesterol, lose weight, or to simply make more informed decisions about healthy living, knowing how you’re nourishing your body can help you achieve your goals. And if you’re looking at each food and supplement label thoroughly with a solid understanding of their meanings, it may be the one time in life that what’s on the outside counts just as much as what is within.

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13. https://www.niddk.nih.gov/health-information/diabetes/overview/diet-eating-physical-activity