5 Red Flags to Notice On Nutrition Labels

nutrition label with text on right that reads 5 red flags to look for on nutrition labels


Buying healthy food for our families should be easy, right?  Especially since new products constantly arrive in the supermarket promising great taste and nutritional benefits.  However, at face value, many choices that may seem healthy could be no better than the junk food you’re trying to avoid.  Below I have 5 red flags to look for on nutrition labels to help you and your family.

nutrition label with text on right that reads 5 red flags to look for on nutrition labels

Do you get confused trying to read nutrition labels on food?  I do.  And if you have the same problem, then we’re not the only ones.  The Center for Health Services Research at Vanderbilt University conducted a study and found that a majority of educated adults (75%) had trouble understanding everyday food nutrition labels.

Susan Moores, a nutrition consultant and spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association, suggests following a “5 and 20” rule.  If a label says it contributes 5% or less (of the daily value of a particular) on certain ingredients, such as sodium and cholesterol, fat and sugar, then that’s good.  If a label says it provides 20 percent of the daily value of a nutrient, such as vitamins, fiber, calcium or iron, then that’s good.

For help with label reading, I highly recommend clicking the Food and Drug Administration’s helpful guide on understanding and reading nutrition labels.  Below are five red flags to watch for on nutrition labels to keep you and your family healthy.


Look Out for Trans Fats

close up of nutrition label with the word "trans fat 0" circled in red

Most commonly found in snack foods and baked goods, trans fats raise cholesterol and are terrible for your heart.  A better name for trans fats is “hydrogenated vegetable oil”. In 2015, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) told food makers they have three years to stop adding trans fats to processed foods. If you see this on a nutrition label, avoid it like the plague.

Added Sugar

sugar from spoon falling into sugar pile

When you have kids figuring out what’s really healthy can sometimes be tricky to determine.  Or, especially if you have diabetes or a family history of diabetes.  Yet there’s an easy way to determine if a food is right for you and your family – check the ingredients.  They’re always listed from top to bottom by how much each ingredient is listed in the food.  If you see sugars near the top, you could be getting an excess of added sugar in that food.  For more information on sugar substitutes, please read this post.

Total Fat Higher than 20%

Total fats are just below calories on the label.  They’re divided by saturated fat and trans fat.  “Percent Daily Value” is to the right of the total number.  If “Total Fat” is listed as higher than 20%, that’s too high.  If you have heart problems or a family history of heart disease, this is a big red flag.  The Institute of Medicine and the American Heart Association recommend a total fat intake of 25-35% of calories.  That’s about 80 grams of fat or less a day if you eat 2,000 calories a day.

More than 400 Calories

Speaking of calories, while each person’s caloric intake per day varies based on numerous factors, health experts like Susan Moores agree that the average adult should consume no more than 2,000 calories per day.  When deciphering a food label, look at the top and review the calories per serving.  If your goal is to eat healthier, the nutrition blog Health Grades recommends simply avoiding any food with more than 400 calories per serving.

Incomplete Nutrition Labels

An incomplete or nonexistent food label on a product should be a major red flag.  While the Food Safety and Standards Act of 2006 requires food items to carry dietary information and a list of ingredients, the sad truth is that many small-scale manufacturers either skip this labeling process or mislead consumers through false claims.  Even larger companies are guilty of misleading products with attention-grabbing labels such as “heart-healthy” “fat-free” or “sugar-free”.  This should be your cue to check the fine print or just simply avoid altogether.

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