Cracking Nutrition Codes: Do’s and Don’ts

Do you know what the information on nutrition labels actually mean?

You’re scoping out the supermarket aisles for a healthful snack. A box of‘100% natural’ almond, oat and fruit granola bars sounds wholesome —perfect, right? Unfortunately, this is a common error. Firstly, because you will not find something nourishing in a pre-packaged, processed item—that deserves it’s own article. But it’s also a mistake to rely on packaging keywords and images when making nutritional decisions.

The truth is, most consumers don’t know how to select the healthiest packaged items while shopping, so they often trust product marketing. While I don’t encourage purchasing processed items frequently, I do believe it’s important to teach consumers how to weed out the bad and select the better —for should they decide to make those purchases. To help you make informed nutritional decisions, here are three DON’Ts for reading nutrition labels:

Don’t Trust Package Fronts

Food packaging is a collision of two of my passions—nutrition and marketing. Since the health industry is always booming, marketers strategically design product packages to attract health-conscious consumers.

They want their product to shout, “I’m healthy”. And while that ‘natural’ granola bar may truthfully contain almonds, oats and fruit as the package states, it’s likely a stretched statement. Most often, seemingly healthful ingredients are actually coated in ‘natural’ sugar, oil, salt or chemicals. Not to mention, when a package is plastered with sentences like, “99% Fat Free” or “55% Less Calories” for instance, several mathematical loop holes have helped to form those statements. In the world of marketing, it’s not false advertising if their statements can be proven in one way or another. But, it’s those ‘ways’ that are highly deceptive.

Don’t Ignore Serving Sizes

We’ve all eagerly glanced at nutrition labels thinking, “Only 100 calories!” or “Just 2g of Fat!” But so many people forget to check the serving size. Those 100 calories may only represent one third of the package contents, or that 2g of Fat may be for one measly cracker. Always check serving sizes before analyzing the nutrition label. It’s important to know the quantity represented, before you can truly conclude nutrition.

Don’t Rely On Percentages

Many labels also list Daily Value Percentages (%DV). If you use these for quick nutritional reference, stop. Several intricate calculations are used to determine those percents.

In fact, my Nutrition Label Reading professor from Cornell University actually said, “It would take me at least a half hour to explain where they came from and what they mean. Then I would have to tell you they’re useless.” And after I did my own research, I learned he was right. The calculations of these percents are based on hypothetical data. You’re better off sticking to the facts represented by weight (g, mg etc.).

Check out next Wednesday’s STAR for a list of the nutrition label reading DO’s. To contact Kristen, visit

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