How to Read Nutrition Labels

Before we dive into how to read these labels let’s talk about the difference between the front and back of the box. (Yes, I'm aware the nutrition labels aren't always on the back of the box)

Food marketing is a multi billion dollar industry with one purpose; to sell you food.

And, they’re REALLY GOOD at it. Large food manufacturers spend a lot of money making sure that the products they make are picked off the shelves, and the way they do that is by understanding how people make their buying decisions, and tailoring their messages to what people are looking for.

It’s helpful as a consumer with a limited understanding of what to look for and a working vocabulary of healthy buzzwords to have the contents of the browseable boxes plastered in bright colors on the front of the box.

Or is it?

See, food marketing is REALLY GOOD at making the things that matter to you very apparent when you’re making your purchasing decisions. But their job is to sell you products, NOT to make sure that the food your buy and eat is the best it can be.

It’s important when we’re shopping for food that we’re mindful of what’s on the front of the box, and are able to determine whether the claims made on the front of the box match the information provided on the back of the box.

Let’s take a look at some Fiber One Chewy Bars PROTEIN!!!!

So, diet research and mainstream media has done plenty to cover the importance of protein to the point where people all over the world who have absolutely no idea what protein even is know it’s important, recognize the word, and associate it with good health.

Now, this is obviously a chocolate bar.


Putting the word Protein in bold letters on the box and emphasizing that it’s got more protein than *net carbs* tells the moderately informed buyer that this is a healthy snack!

And, to that buyer's credit, if the choice was between this fiber one protein bar, and say, a Snickers, there might be more benefit to eating this than said Snickers. But it’s a very incomplete story about the contents of this bar.

To get an accurate picture of what's actually contained in this snack, we need to understand what's on the back of the box.

The first thing we want to look at when we're checking what's in our food is the ingredients list.

A general rule of thumb that I always find helpful when choosing foods is to try to know what you're eating. I.e. if you don't know what something in the ingredients list is, either Google it and find out, or don't eat it.

Now, when you read an ingredient list, it's important to note the order they're placed in. The ingredients are listed in order by volume, meaning the earlier they appear in the list the more present they are in that food.

In our example here, Chickory root extract is the first ingredient on the list.

Now, chickory root is widely regarded as a great source of fiber with no real negative attributes. Good news!

It's also first on the list here, which means there's more fiber in this bar than anything else; which is awesome, right!?

Well, not so fast. See, the ingredients are listed in order by volume, but we know that food manufacturers are willing to spend hundreds of billions of dollars on marketing to make these foods sell, so they're probably looking for ways to make what's on the back of the box appear to be congruent with what's on the front.

If we look a little bit closer at the label, we'll see that yes, chickory root extract might be the largest single ingredient, and that ingredient might be a source of fiber, BUT;

This product contains two artificial sweeteners, and three different types of sugar.

Both Stevia leaf extract and Erythritol are artificial sweeteners.

And sugar, invert sugar, and corn syrup are all sugars.

These companies are smart. By using a variety of different combinations of sugars and sweeteners they appear to be creating products that are healthy, when in reality, it's some clever legalese that's keeping them compliant with regulations while continuing to create and sell products that are in the best interest of very few consumers.

Just remember, companies want to make money, and it's easier to pay a lawyer once to figure out how to drive production cost down than it is to pay for increased production costs once.

That means, as with most things in this life, that the responsibility to know what's going on falls to you.

And that's why we made this course! We want you to know what's up, so you can make the best choices for you.

Now let's look at the final piece on the back of the box; the nutrition facts.

So let's use this opportunity to understand nutrition labels in the context of our protein granola bar friend from Fiber One. This stuff usually makes more sense with some context, so go back and forth to the image if you need to clarify what we're talking about here.

Let's go top to bottom.

The first thing you'll see is the word NUTRITON FACTS.

That's a dead giveaway. They're about to give you facts about nutrition. *Cries laughing at own joke*

Lol, anyway.

The next thing you'll see is the serving size. In this case the serving size is 2 bar, or 33 grams. This is usually the case for any individually wrapped snacks like bars, but for bulk snacks or bags there's usually an estimated number of snacks like "84 carrots" or "approximately 6 potato chips".

This information is important, because the information contained below the serving size is the nutrition facts for that serving size only. If you have 60 chips, you'll need to multiply the other values contained in the rest of the table accordingly to account for the increase in chippage.

Cool? Cool.


Next up we've got our calorie count. In this example our bar contains 130 calories. This is a wonderful estimate that can be off by up to 25% in EITHER DIRECTION depending on a number of factors, most of which were discussed in Nutrition 101 so we won't go into it in too much detail, but the common factor is absorption. Some people absorb more calories from the food they eat, some less. This can be because of different amount of enzymes prevelant in different people, different levels or potency of stomach acids, different levels of function in the digestive tract, stress, sleep etc.

Anyway, we'll get into that in way more depth in a future course, but for now, just understand that there's variability in this figure, and the calorie count they've given you is the best estimate given the methods we currently have to determine a calorie count.

Cool? Moving on.


Next up we've got our fat. It's given as a heading of Total Fat with a couple of subcategories underneath; saturated fat and trans fat.