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How to Quickly Scan Food Labels and Choose the Healthiest Option


You’re at the grocery store with a plan to shop for half an hour. You’ve got your list ready and you’re armed to walk up and down those isles. You’ve even promised to read the food labels carefully and make some better choices. Then, your phone rings. Change of plans, you know how it goes, and you now need to grab what you can, pay and rush out of there. How do you pick up some food in a hurry AND grab the healthiest option without spending tons of time reading the nutrition label? Here are a few simple pointers to keep in mind to quickly make a good decision. These tips may not work for every item, but they are general pointers to guide your decision making.

How Do You Pronounce That Ingredient?

Can you pronounce the ingredient name? If it has several syllables and is hard to say the first time reading it, then you should probably put the box down. A good rule of thumb is don’t buy it if you don’t know what it is. Those ingredients are most likely processed and void of nutritional value. Chances are, that long name is a substance that was created in a lab. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but some people just don’t want artificial and genetically modified ingredients in their food, period. Say we apply this to potato chips. Buy the brand whose ingredients are “potatoes, salt, (and possibly other spices),” rather than the brand with a ton of ingredients. You don’t have to feel like you need to swear off potato chips to eat healthier; you can always buy a better brand with better ingredients.

Is That a Laundry List or What?

A simple trick to quickly decipher food labels is to look at the ingredient list for quantity. If there are dozens of ingredients, put it down. The more ingredients a food item has, the more likely that item is packed with highly processed, artificial ingredients that are probably not great for you.

Is There a Sugar Mountain Hiding In There?

Sugar is a sneaky little devil. It’s easy to eat a bunch of it, and when it comes to packaged food, it’s even easier. Sugar is hiding not only in desserts, but also in ketchup, crackers, breads, cereal, granola bars and several other food items. A quick way to tell if a product has too much sugar for you is to divide the grams of sugar by four. That number is how many tablespoons of sugar are in that product. So, four grams of sugar equals one tablespoon. A food item with 16 grams of sugar has four tablespoons of it. The World Health Organization recommends adults eat no more than 25 grams or six teaspoons of sugar per day. With just a few servings, you can easily reach your daily recommendation in no time!

What Does That Word Even Mean?

It can be easy to look at buzzwords and phrases like “all natural,” “zero sugar” and “made with real fruit” and decide to put the item in your cart based on that label. But look beyond the buzzword to see what it means by checking the ingredient list and nutrition facts. Labels aren’t always trustworthy. According to Consumer Reports, “nearly 60 percent of people look for the term “natural” when they shop for food, but bout two-thirds believe it means a processed food has no artificial ingredients, pesticides, or genetically modified organisms, and more than 80 percent believe that it should mean those things.” Here are 4 Food Label Buzzwords You Actually CAN Trust.

With these rules of thumb in mind, you’re off to a good start in being a conscious label reader.

Image source: Smabs Sputzer/ Flickr

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