Sometimes it feels like I spend a solid quarter of my life reading nutrition labels. I know I have to read those labels to know what’s in my food, but reading all the labels — for everything — means a trip to the grocery store takes at least twice as long as it would if it didn’t involve standing around the aisles googling “xylitol” while the ice cream melts.
And the problem with nutrition labels is that they can be confusing, especially when the labels are designed to make us want to buy their products. Packages are covered with words like “natural” and “superfood,” which sound super important but don’t actually provide much useful information. Most of the useful nutrition is on the back of the label, but even that can be a lot, especially when you’re trying to get out of the grocery store before the next ice age. So what do you pay attention to?
In The New York Times, Lizz Schumer writes that among all the marketing promises and confusing names for ingredients that can take up space on a food label, the two things everyone should really pay attention to on food labels are added sugar and serving size.
Plenty of foods have naturally-occurring sugars. Berries, apples, and carrots all contain naturally occurring sugars, and they’re all still healthful things to eat. But some foods also have sugar added to them during the production process. Registered dietician Andy Bellatti told Schumer that it’s important to keep an eye on the amount of those added sugars listed on any nutrition label, and he recommends that adults keep their daily intake of added sugars under 24 grams.
According to the Times, the other thing people should be always look at on nutrition labels is serving size, because serving size is not something you can guess from looking at a package or product. Clinical nutritionist Debi Zvi told Schumer that even “single-serving” packages can actually contain two or more.
The nutrition information is always presented as being “per serving,” but what’s a serving? If a cookie has 100 calories per serving, is that for one cookie, or four? And without that information, you can never really know how many vitamins or calories or how much fat and sugar is in any item of food. But if you have a second to look at the serving size and the amount of added sugar listed on the label, it will give you a much better idea of what you’re looking at.