Why I Don’t Read Nutrition Facts Labels (with one exception)

With the recent announcement about nutrition facts labels possibly getting their first major facelift in 20 years, I thought I’d take this opportunity to share my thoughts on nutrition labels in general. First of all, I almost never read them. I used to read them though. In fact, it used to be the only thing I looked at on the back of the package, but these days I find MUCH more value in reading the ingredient label instead.

Reading the ingredient label is the number one way to know what’s in your packaged food and how processed it is.

I have never been one to count calories, fat grams and the like, and one of the reasons for that is – and hopefully we can all agree – not all calories or fat grams are created equal! Please don’t let anyone try to tell you an avocado is just as “bad for you” as a donut just because they both have 21 grams of fat.

Same goes for calories – a pack of Skittles has about the same number of calories as 2 cups of organic grapes. Clearly those two are not even close to being equivalent when it comes to eating whole foods for good health. I would also say that considering grams of naturally occurring sugars vs. added sugars falls into the same category as well. And these are all the “facts” pointed out to us on the Nutrition Facts Label!

All Fat Grams Not Created Equal from 100 Days of #RealFood

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5 Reasons I Don’t Read Nutrition Facts Labels:

  1. Prominently featured stats like calories, fat grams, and sugars are not all created equal (as demonstrated above).
  2. Tracking those calories, fat grams, protein, etc. most definitely takes the “fun” out of eating.
  3. I prefer to stop eating when I feel full (granted, not always an easy task) to know when I’ve had enough food. And if you do this in addition to eating a variety of whole foods I believe everything else will fall into place – no counting or label checking required.
  4. The vitamin section can be incredibly misleading. A loaf of bread made with factory enriched white flour can “appear” to have more vitamins than a loaf of bread made with whole wheat flour, and that’s because the vitamins featured are not even close to showing you the whole picture.
  5. The stats highlighted tell me absolutely NOTHING about how highly processed the packaged food is.

One Sweet Exception

Now with that said – there is one “sweet” exception to all of this. There is a pretty major change proposed to the one part of the nutrition label that I do look at on occasion (a change I have actually been wanting for some time). This change has to do with sugar. Sugar itself is not necessarily the devil, but the quantity in which it’s typically consumed is a problem when it comes to our health. And it’s easy to overlook because sugar is no longer just reserved for sweets but rather added to everything these days including bread, crackers, yogurt, salad dressings, cereals, beverages, and so on.

So on occasion, if I do see some form of added sugar spelled out on the ingredient label I like to know exactly how much it contains. For example, I wanted to purchase some smoked salmon the other day and was surprised to see brown sugar on the ingredient list. But when I looked at the grams of sugar per serving it was less than 1 gram, so I knew it contained very little sugar (and therefore I purchased it).

But the “Sugars” listing on the current Nutrition Facts Label does have one major flaw. If you were considering buying a product like flavored yogurt, which is made from milk obviously and therefore has naturally occurring sugar, there is no way to separate how many of the grams of sugar are from the milk versus the refined added sugar to give the yogurt it’s flavor. So that’s why I am super excited to see this proposed change that I would refer to on occasion…

Nutrition Facts Labels proposed changes from 100 Days of #RealFood
Proposed changes could be implemented in about two years.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on packaged food labels (and the proposed changes as well). Do any of you look at the Nutrition Facts labels? If so, what are you looking out for?

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131 thoughts on “Why I Don’t Read Nutrition Facts Labels (with one exception)”

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  1. I wish they would list the potassium on nutrition labels. I deal with adrenal insufficiency and resulting hyponatremia, so I must avoid food and drinks that are high in potassium while making sure I get high amounts of sodium. Sodium is listed, so why not potassium? Only some companies choose to list it.

  2. I think it would be a wonderful idea to list the added sugars separate from the natural sugars. It really would be nice to know to be able to make an informed decision.

  3. I used to read Nutrition Facts exclusively. First, it was for portion size and calories, but later on, it was for portion size and carbs. I think the limit I had for carbs on that diet was 31g per day. As I became more aware, I did pretty much stop with the Nutrition Facts, with the exception of noting portion sizes per container on some. Like you, I switched to paying more attention to the ingredients list.

    I like the proposed changes! I like that the servings per container will be more prominent, and the serving size is right under it. That would’ve alleviated some disagreements of a few years ago! Teenage boy, and his father!, thought the whole thing was the serving size, no matter how many times I showed them servings per container and serving size! They couldn’t get “read the small print”. haha

    I’ll be happy to see added sugars instead of just total sugars, as well.

  4. Verena Tonnesen

    I read nutrition labels mostly for carb counts. My physician wants the daily carbs to be 150 a day. Once I hit 150, no more carbs of any kind. I have a book that tells me the information for hundreds of foods, but if it is on the label, this helps make it easier.

  5. I heard that there was talk of listing the sugars in tems of teaspoon equivilents instead of grams. Most people don’t know how a gram translates in real life so I think that would be a huge change for the positive. Of course, the food industry is fighting that. As far as people not reading the labels, the government can only do so much as far as providing easy to interprete labeling standards. If people refuse to take the time to read the label that’s their problem.

  6. It would be nice if they listed the percentage of sugar on the label too. The reason they don’t is the government caved to lobbyist in the sugar industry. In most cases the percentage is so high, no one looking at it would buy the product! And even the reccommended daily allowance is artificially high for the same reason. Check out the movie, Fed Up’ if you haven’t already. Eye opening!

  7. What about labeling all the other added garbage in processed food such as tectured soy protein, hydrolyzed soy protein or anything hydrolyzed, msg, yeast extracs, guar gum, modified food starch, caramel color, citric acid, calcium chloride, disodium EDTA…and the list goes on. ‘m just looking at a can of soup to get this list of crap. All I know is that when I make soup at home NONE of these ingredients go in the pot. So yes, I look at labels all the time. If an item contains something I wouldn’t use as an ingredient, I wont buy it. Sugar is the least of my worries. And BTW, I don’t use sugar when making bread at home so if a store bought loaf contains sugar or any other additives, I don’t buy it. I rarely buy bread anywhere else other then an organic bakery. Oh, and look at the labels on something as simple as cottage cheese. Daisy brand has three ingredients:cultured milk, cream and salt. Perfect. Now look at any other brand in the grocery store and they have up to 20 added ingredients in simple, plain cottage cheese. No thank you. There are good options out there for pure food but you really have to read the labels. For instance-I don’t like canola oil for many reasons. I was duped into buying Hellman’s Olive Oil Mayonnaise because the label said it was made with olive oil. I was lazy and didn’t check. Guess what? The first ingredient was canola oil. Olive oil was one of the last ingredients on the list which means olive oil is the smallest ingredient used in their so called olive oil mayonnaise. I now make my own for pennies with eggs, olive oil and spices of my choice using an emersion blender and a small jelly jar. And don’t let the foods found in the organics department fool you. There’s more unhealthy crap in some veggie burgers and vegan cheeses then one would think.Just because it’s vegetarian or vegan doesn’t mean it’s good for you. Much of the processed (V) stuff is pure crap.Oh, and don’t even get me started on Eggbeaters or margarine. Seriously, eat real eggs and real butter. Your body will thank you for it because it’s food as nature intended and your body can use. And any low-fat/fat-free version of an original will do you more harm then the original because of all the added sugar, salt and artificial ingredients. And yes, sugar is the better choice over artificial sweeteners.

  8. Really curious as to why fat, cholesterol, and sodium all have a %daily value, but sugar does not??? This is the biggest problem of all, the immense amount of sugar in everything. I read about how the World Health Organization researched sugar intake and recommended a daily standard, but that the processed food creators(a.k.a. big dollar food corporations) fought to have this retracted. Could it be that hidden sugar products = increased obesity = higher demand of more hidden sugar products = more corporate profits ??? Hmmm…

    1. Actually, you don’t. Currently, all sugars are lumped together. The nutritional label for an orange would include sugars, but they are all naturally occurring sugars. As she mentioned, flavoured yogourt will also have sugar, but some will be naturally occurring (from the milk), and some will be added.
      If you’re trying to cut down on processed sugars, then this is an important distinction which is not indicated on nutritional labels now.

  9. This looks like a wonderful resource for school aged children. while my kids are too young to be in school I will bookmark this page for future reference.

  10. Is that the ONLY thing they’re considering adding?? If that’s the case, why move things from the right side to the left side and make it look like they did more ‘fixing’ than what will actually make a difference? Just add that one part and leave it as it is.

  11. I really encourage you to dig more deeply into the current and proposed nutrition facts label. First, it should be clear on current labels that different fats are treated differently, enabling you to differentiate between the fat in an avocado and a doughnut.

    I also think you will be very happy with FDA’s new definition of dietary fiber, which will alleviate some of your concerns.

  12. I have looked at the nutritional facts a lot untill taking almost all packaged foods out of my diet. I like the proposed labels for the same reason you were buying the salmon or yogurt. But honestly I don’t want someone else to sweeten my yogurt any more. The biggest thing I look at is the servings per container. I have a family of 5 and want to see that there is enough or knowing that this package is plenty and should only use about half. Too much of a good thing is still too much. Especially beverages, I used to drink a whole bottle of juice blends that are good for you untill I saw how much I was drinking in a single sitting< like 3 serving. I dont drink soda anymore but those are really bad. You glance at the nutritional facts and think this single serving isnt bad and you drink it to know you didnt look close enough and see that there was 2.5 serving and you need to multiple what you just consumed. Thanks for your blog it is very much changing my families way we eat and look at food.

  13. I don’t read the labels much, and don’t think the overhaul will have the effect some people want. How many normal people read the label? The average person buys based on flavor and price, and don’t even read the ingredients (if people did would some of the garbage be in the food?. Some who do read labels are also easily fooled by the claims (as was said) how else would we sell so much low fat dairy (especially the stuff made from milk fat, how do you get low fat fat?)

  14. Melissa McCluney

    Thank you for this fabulous article! I am a read-the-ingredient list gal, too. I quit eating sugar about 8 years ago and through the advice of a whole food friend, dropped the nutrition “facts” check for the often looong list of stuff-you-can’t-pronounce-but-They-expect-you-to-eat. I am SO glad the sugar amounts will finally show the differences!!

  15. I avoid processed food as much as possible but sometimes I do buy some packaged food items/ingredients. I don’t pay much attention to most of the nutrition elements on the labels except for sugars and sodium (we keep a low-sodium diet for medical reasons) and my favorite is the ingredient list.

  16. Dana Trumpower

    I always look at labels. First I see how long the ingredient list is. If it is long, I look into it a little further! Secondly, on snack foods, I make sure my children know what a serving size is. My daughter could have eaten an entire bag of trail mix, until I pointed out the whole bag was 11 servings and a day’s worth of calories! Kids do need to learn portion size. I like the added sugar component of the new label, but notice there is no RDA % for sugar! People need to know what a day’s worth of sugar should really be! And most things “lower” in sugar typically has fake sugars, which are no better for you. I hate that. I don’t want aspartame in my yogurt, but I also don’t want 29 grams of sugar!

  17. I found a label once on a tweenky like product produced in mexico it read: ingredients ; cake mix, well duh!

  18. #1 I check sodium – the American diet is so high in sodium that it is critical to know what they have done there, #2 I don’t worry too much about total fat; I do always check saturated fat – that is the real difference between the avocado and the doughnut, #3 I ignore trans fat since it is generally a big fat lie and always scan the ingredient list instead for this information. Hopefully the FDA will get off their rears soon and enforce taking the poisons of partially hydrogenated oils out of our food system.

    I am glad to see the added sugars category – it is additional good information. To Laura’s comment it would be better if they did add fruit puree than the added sugar component – sugar in place is not bad. The problem with added sugar is getting the blood sugar rush without the other goodness that comes from the fruits and vegetables to temper it (potassium, fiber, etc.). So, to that end I wish that they had also added Potassium – it gives food data for those managing hypertension.

  19. As a (Type 1) diabetic, I really need the total carbohydrates entry on the label. Although I agree with you in large part about the issues of processed versus naturally occurring, and the importance of the ingredients list, it is critical to me to know how many carbs I am consuming, so I know how much insulin to use.

  20. My big annoyance with labels….is they don’t list artificial sweeteners (unless this is part of the added sugars?). Yes they have the warning on the front usually in small writing and its lost in the ingredients, but there’s no grams in the nutrition section.

    Ive thrown away so much food thinking it was low in sugar, and after glancing quickly over the label not realizing it had a whack of artificial sweeteners. Id rather have no sugar. >.< But atleast most of my food is homemade now, which is harder to keep track of calories and portions….but so much healthier. :)

  21. It’s all tricky and much like a chemistry nightmare. Someone told me once….if it doesn’t occur in nature in that state, might not want to eat it.

  22. I too rarely read the nutrition label for the same reasons. I look first at ingredients and additives and I am sad to say that there is little packaged food out there without additives!! I am increasingly seeing more which is good, after watching Food, Inc. I am now looking into grass fed beef, pork and poultry from local farmers as well. I grow all of my veggies naturally too. I am glad to see this label change now if they would list the GMO’s and pesticides/herbicides. ….that will never happen!! Sadly too many people eat food like products instead of real, chemical free food, humanely raised food!!

  23. My biggest gripe is that they get away with ‘serving size 1 cup’, Approx servings 4. Then you measure out the servings and you are lucky if you get 3 cups!!! This is really bad with frozen foods as they tend to judge the servings AFTER it’s frozen.

    Very excited about the added sugars, but like so many others have mentioned there are a lot more steps that should be taken!!

  24. These are my thoughts exactly! You have to be carefully reading those labels and people are just not educated about it. Thank you for this

  25. As a dietetics student, I agree 100% with this post. I think it is important to keep the food in question in perspective and counting numbers is never fun! One thing to keep in mind with the new food label, companies may try to get around the added sugar labeling but adding fruit purees to foods that wouldn’t normally have the sugar to make it seem like there is nothing “added”. I’m interested to see how this new labeling system pans out!

  26. They give you a false sense of security. The new label is still missing important info. I do like added sugars info but I think they are still masking a lot of important info.
    I wish any food that has processed ingredients, additives, GMO’s and preservatives should be noted with a symbol saying so. Make amount of serving size 1 cup vs 2/3 cup. ??? Who eats 2/3 a cup of anything? Just makes it harder to calculate values. Would also like to see calories from fat and sugar(added) labeled. I also am not quite sure of the validity of the trans fat number. Something seems wrong here. I’m betting there are more trans fat than listed. I think that is still a debated subject as to exactly what gets labeled as trans fat. Just a feeling.

    1. Good news – Part of the new nutrition facts is to also make the serving sizes more accurately reflect serving sizes. On soda for example it will list the entire bottle’s facts.

  27. I would like to see Iron in grams. There is no RDA for iron since it varies from person to person, so the percentage is meaningless.

  28. The only thing I look for on a nutrition fact label is fiber. Something that says “whole grain” and only has 2 grams of fiber is not “whole grain”

    I love the new addition for sugar

  29. I don’t really look at the nutrition facts labels either. I mainly just look at the ingredients. I am also happy about the added sugars section on the label though.

    I love avocados and often post avocado recipes on my blog. I can’t tell you how many times people have said something along the lines of “Your avocado recipes look so good! I wish I could make one, but avocados are so unhealthy”. I hate how the media has scared people away from healthy foods, and healthy fats. Thanks for putting up that avocado/doughnut comparison. There is a such thing as healthy fats…and they are tasty!