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

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 do read the nutrition labe, mainly for the salt in the item. Even salt that naturally occurs in foods like fish can be problematic for me. I do also watch the sugar content, but I tend to go with less salt product if I have a choice.

  2. The more whole foods you buy, the fewer labels you have to read also. For example…all the apples, bananas, spinach, carrots, etc have no labels. I try to fill my grocery cart with those things rather than the labeled foods. :)

    But I agree–the ingredient list is much more important to me than the nutrition facts.

  3. After reading The Daniel Plan I realized how the ingredients list is more important than the nutrition facts label. I aim for foods without a package or food with 5 or fewer ingredients listed. I appreciate your blog to help me find more great recipes.

  4. I never thought about it like that until now. Wow what an eye opener. You are 100% right and it’s scary how easily we are all bamboozled by the packaging labels.

  5. I love your picture of the avocado vs donut! Can I put it on my blog and link it back to you? Anyways, you are very right – not all calories are created equal and people sometimes forget that.

    I have been on and off with the reading nutrition labels. I find it that when I do it too much, I get too obsessed about the food. However, I also recognize that I shouldn’t be eating most things that have nutrition labels on them either (i.e. I should be focusing more on fruits and veggies anyways!). However, recently, I have been checking the labels again mostly for sodium. It’s amazing how sodium sneaks up on you! In addition to sodium, I do take a look at the sugar and while I had glanced at the new labels before, I did not realize the new category “added sugar”, which I definitely approve of! I am so tired of all the added sugar I see in food.

  6. 'Evelyn McMullene

    Had a fatty liver a few years ago & my gastroenterologist told me not to eat anything that comes in a box or can. it’s made a difference, liver is now normal.

  7. 'Evelyn McMullene

    Now if only the GMO and definitions of all the CHEMICALS in processed food were listed it would be a help. The more UNPRONOUNCABLE things listed the more I’m inclined not to buy the product. I try to eat “clean” natural food, not processed, for the most part, altho I am hooked on Oreos, bad me.

    1. Try making your own Oreos and you will never go back. I make them once a year for my husband’s birthday and he claims they are even better then real ones. I use the recipe from Smitten Kitchen’s website. (I use sustainable palm shortening in the frosting).

      I too eat mostly whole foods and pay attention to ingredient lists, not food labels. Though, I do look at the fiber to see if things are truly made from whole grains. I am also excited about the added sugars part,

  8. We use the Nutritional Facts the same way you do. Read the ingredients first then try to decipher questions with the NF. Having more details on the sugar will be really helpful. We eat about 80-90% whole foods, so I want to be really careful about the foods I don’t make from whole foods.

  9. I mostly read ingredient labels, but nutrition labels are nice for serving size when cooking a meal. For instance, if I want to add brown rice noodles to a stir fry, it’s nice to know how much I should prepare for the number of people eating the dish. I think that as long as you know how to read the label and incorporate that information with the ingredients list, it can be a nice tool to help control portion size, along with listening to your stomach. I love that the added sugars are now separate from whole sugars, that is one thing that bothered me about the old label. It would be nice if the label also had a note about limiting added sugars, but people can make that decision for themselves.

  10. I read it all so I can make the best choice out of all similar products. I have a very good understanding of how the body processes macronutrients, vitamin, minerals, etc. so I feel on a quick glance at ingredients first, I am able to make an informed decision. I usually just put it all back!!

  11. Lisa, if I were as articulate I would’ve said the exact things. Except I never ever read nutrition labels but ALWAYS ingredients. I love this change, though, and I’ll start paying more attention when it occurs. Incidentally, I usually put the package back because most of them list more than a few items and stuff that doesn’t sound very foodish. Usually I find that packages with emphasis on what’s good emblazoned on the front, are trying to distract from what’s in the small print, with few exceptions.

  12. If it has a nutrtion label, it is in a package and is probably processed, so I will try to avoid it. But if I do eat it, I like to look at the sodium number. I try to avoid too much sodium. Clean, fresh eating is the best way to go and no nutrition labels are needed there. Happy healthy eating!

  13. I do too read the ingredients more than the nutrition label. However, we have a T1 diabetic in the family, so knowing how many carbs and how much sugar per serving is very helpful whenever a packaged products is needed i.e. 100% juice for fastlow blood sugar fix.

    I do like that proposed change!

  14. I don’t think the daily value should be included because there are few people who eat a 2000 calorie diet, daily. This category is misleading on how much fat, carbs., & protein is in the product.

  15. p.s. I VERY much like the proposed change, although we also are trying to eliminate packaged foods as much as possible, there are times when we do use a packaged product!

  16. I like the change for Added Sugar. I work for a dietician and Carbs and sugar are considered NO GO. I have a running joke with them about carbs and sugar because so much of these in the foods I eat are natural. I would like to know more.
    I use labels to look more at ingredients and serving size.

  17. I have always wondered about the high amount of sugar in a serving of milk, and if I am suppose to count that toward a daily sugar count just as i would if I were to give my child a Milkyway candy bar. I am trying to drastically limit my families over the top sugar intake and haven’t known how to calculate. What is a good amount of natural sugar intake perday?(such as from fruit and milk)?

  18. my digestion and health needs are constantly fluctuating so depending on if I need more proteins in my diet or certain vitamins I will look at those things but the main one besides the ingredients is probably the sugars. Very excited about the added sugars change.

  19. I’m a registered dietitian and an advocate of nutrition labels and ingredient lists, and I love the new changes that are coming. The fact is, everyone’s health status and nutritional needs are different so including a lot of information on the label is important, even if it seems unnecessary to some. For example, heart patients need to closely monitor their saturated and trans fat intake, those with hypertension need adequate potassium and calcium and to limit sodium, those with anemia or who are prepping for major surgery need a diet high in iron, and diabetics need to know how many grams of carbs per serving to control their blood glucose. You are fortunate that no members of your family need to pay close attention to the nutrition label for health reasons, but that may not always be the case. Personally, I’m grateful that all of that information is so quickly and easily accessible to everyone.

  20. I’m with you, Lisa. I find that only reading the ingredients list is of importance to me. Now if they could make it law to describe what “natural flavors” (or the like) are in the ingredients list then we’d be making headway! Thanks for posting this. The “Nutrition Facts” has bothered me for years.

  21. I love this proposal!!! I usually look at the sugars per serving and would love to know how many if any added sugars there are without having to look at the ingredients. Also when I look at labels I look for calories per serving and saturated fats. I typically pay close attention to the first three ingredients and any allergens.
    Thank you for this blog I shared it on my Facebook!!!!!

  22. Not sure it will make that much of a difference but it’s nice to see that the servings per container are visible…however, it’s been my goal to get away from foods with labels….

    I do count calories and look more at sodium content and to make sure I reach some of my other nutrient goals…but when I track my food,it’s after I’ve eaten…and I’m surprised at how well I’m doing with real foods.

  23. We mostly look out for sugar and sodium content, because my husband is a diabetic and needs to watch his intake of both. Other than that though, I worry more about the ingredients list :) I do think the changes proposed are positive ones, however. Possibly even a step in he right direction.

    1. This is a great point! Being a diabetic myself, added sugar and “naturally occuring sugar” both raise my blood sugar. I find that the more ingredients listed, the more sugars are in the product, even if not listed in the ingredients. I think this change in nutrition labels are very important in helping general consumers realize how many items actually have sugar added to them, since it is added to almost everything any more!

  24. Wouldn’t it be great if none of us ate packaged foods? The fact is, we all do to some extent and most in our country do to a very large extent. I think the change in the nutrition label means far more than just changing the label. First and foremost, it brings attention to many that don’t even know they exist! It is also a statement from our government of all things that the current labels are misleading, out of date and not providing us with good information. It is a sign of change. In working with people and helping them eat clean, real food, the first step is making them aware of the chemicals and junk in packaged foods and teaching them to read nutrition labels. It is a step in the process to eating real food. The end goal is to eliminate as much packaged food as possible,and make wise decisions when choosing packaged foods. The nutrition labels won’t be perfect (wish they would explain the potential side effects of the many mystery ingredients like TBHQ and Splenda), but it is a step in the right direction.

  25. L. Walter Hershey

    Being 66 years old, a retired attorney used to reading fine print, I have followed the advice of a licensed nutritionist over the past 15 months to pay equal or greater attention to the INGREDIENTS and to stop — as much as humanly possible — eating processed foods.

    Following this advice and using what is called INTERMITTENT FASTING — which is eating only during an 8-10 hour time span during the day and “fasting” during the remaining 14-16 hours, which took be about 3-4 weeks to adjust to starting in August 2013, I have found it easy to keep off the extra 12% of body weight I had shed in the few months leading up to August.

    Yes, I read the nutrition labels and like the example you posted. But mostly I avoid processed foods and only eat regular, whole foods — using portions and next to no snacking — to give my body the nutritional mix that it needs. I also have dropped supplements of any kind including One-A-Day vitamins, etc.

    What works then is to learn to listen to my own body — rather than rationalize a bunch of numbers and micronutrients. It works! It is called BIO-INDIVIDUALITY.


  26. I like to see what the rda of the nutrients is and the amount of protein is, just out of curiosity. I do like the newly designed labels and the fact that the serving sizes will be more close to normal. I like how it is easier to read.

    I have been doing The Daniel Plan now for about 3 weeks. I did the 10 day detox and now have introduced dairy and gluten back in. None of them seem to be bothering me, but I am still keeping them low and going non gluten when possible.

    I find it freeing not having to count calories or points.

  27. I think a good mix of both is required. Not all calories are created equal, however, you can still get fat eating all healthy foods. The ingredients list helps you keep it healthy, the nutritional label helps you keep it in moderation. Healthy foods can become unhealthy if you don’t have moderation. Also, unless you take supplements or unless you memorized what foods have what vitamins, the nutritional label can help you make sure you’re getting certain vitamins at least. Especially if you’re trying to lose weight or have an overeating issue, the ingredient list alone won’t help you. If you’re just trying to eat more healthy and not really lose weight, then its not as important, unless you notice yourself gaining weight obviously.

    1. In my opinion it’s extremely difficult to get unhealthy (I won’t say fat because its easy to forget that thin people can have nutrition-related illnesses) eating unprocessed foods. Food and nutrition labeling are deceptive generally for their reductionist view of food as only agglomerations of ‘nutrition elements’. We really don’t know anywhere near as much about how nutrients work in our bodies, how they interact with each other, and how various environmental factors and micro-nutrients effect absorption, retention and use; as the RDA listed on labels might lead us to believe. Avoiding anything with more than five ingredients listed on the package (Michael Pollan) may be the most sound nutritional advice in decades.

  28. I love trying something new and after hard work and practise bring able to do it.
    There is no comfort then that, and familiarity with the same thing…but when I try something new and soon accomplish it I feel so very proud,…

  29. Great article Lisa. I usually just read the ingredients listing too. One of the big problems with the nutritional facts is that they list all sweeteners as “sugars” (plural). They lump all sweeteners under this title, even though some may not be actual sugar (singular). So HFCS will be lumped under this “sugars” title too, as will any other man-made sweetening agents. And HFCS and the others (like aspartame) are not “sugar”.

    If it were up to me, I would require food manufacturers to list sweeteners under the title “sweeteners” and then list the specific sweeteners with their amounts under that title.

  30. Yes! We are exactly the same. I think nutrition labels actually make everything worse because they lead people to making misguided choices, for the very reason you stated–calories are not created equal. Some are nutrient dense and useful for the body; others, like corn syrup, are completely useless to us, and can in fact hard us. I used look at sugar content out of curiosity too, but it’s always so disheartening that I’ve stopped. The one thing I do always turn packaging over for is the ingredients list. That’s the easiest way to determine if it’s worth your money if it will be a good choice for your health :) A low number of ingredients + ingredients I can pronounce and recognize = a relatively good choice!

    1. Assistant to 100 Days (Amy)

      Hi Alexandra. That is such a good question! While you can find store-bought loaves that are far better than others (Ezekial is a good choice), most have shamefully long additive and preservative lists. While I don’t tout the health benefits of refined flour (because there really aren’t any), I might chose the homemade white in a pinch. But why make homemade white when you can make yummy homemade whole wheat? ;) ~Amy

  31. I think the change in labeling is good . . . baby steps. I read the ingredient list first. If it fits the bill, when I’m serving/plating the food, I look at the nutrition label for the serving size. I’ve learned over the last 6 to 8 months that I over estimate serving sizes. I haven’t quite mastered “stopping when I’m full,” especially if it’s something particularly delicious, like pasta or cheese.

  32. Love this. Always annoyed me that all sugar 2 was created equal on the current labels. The only other part of those labels I read is sodium.

  33. I’m glad that reading the ingredient label provides you with the info you need, but sadly it leaves many people with less than helpful information. I encourage you to take this into consideration as I know many of your followers suffer from allergies and since you do not seem to be impressed with the current overhaul of labels. We could use a popular voice outside of allergies to promote an important cause. http://www.change.org/petitions/michelle-obama-become-an-advocate-for-clear-and-accurate-food-ingredient-labels-regarding-top-allergens?share_id=rncffjOfQJ&utm_campaign=share_button_action_box&utm_medium=facebook&utm_source=share_petition

  34. I always look at nutrition labels to check for amount and type of fat, but even more importantly for me, amount of sodium. As a heart attack survivor, it is imperative that I keep my sodium down to 1500 mg a day or less. When I first got out of the hospital and started checking how much sodium is in packaged foods, I was absolutely shocked and overwhelmed, wondering how I would ever control my sodium when it’s in almost every packaged product either for flavor or as a preservative. The answer was to go clean. I eat only real, whole foods 90 percent of the time, which eliminated the fear and worry that I would never be able to eat in a way that doesn’t reduce the function of my already-damaged heart. When I found 100 Days of Real Food, I was overjoyed. Thank you for being here to advise and encourage us!