What’s Really in Your Food: Labels, Ingredients and What they Mean

What’s Really in Your Food: Labels, Ingredients and What they Mean

Let me guess… you resolved to eat healthier in 2018.

But when you walked into the grocery store in search of healthier options, you felt overwhelmed by all the facts on the back of the box. Don’t worry — we’re here to help demystify nutrition labels so that you can choose the healthiest items for your family.

Before your food makes it to the checkout, look at the following:

Serving Size
It’s important to look at the serving size (how much you should eat at one time) and how many servings are in each package. Oftentimes, the serving size listed is smaller than the amount one would consume. This makes the item appear lower in calories. Case in point? Ice cream. Almost every ice cream carton lists one serving size as ½ cup, but rarely does one scoop that amount. Sometime, try measuring and you’ll see how little ice cream that is compared to what you normally scoop — which is more like 1 cup.


Each individual’s calorie needs vary greatly depending on their age, height, weight, gender and activity level. If you’re trying to lose weight, you need to create a calorie deficit. You can use an app like My Fitness Pal to track your calories and macronutrients. When shopping and reviewing nutrition labels, look for products that are low in calories and high in nutritional value. A diet rich in vegetables and fruit helps achieve this goal. The average adult should consume between two and four servings of vegetables and about two servings of fruit daily.


Daily Values
Percent Daily Value (DV) is a guide to the nutrients in one serving of food. For example, if the label lists 15 percent for calcium, it means that one serving provides 15 percent of the calcium you need each day. DVs are based on a 2,000-calorie diet. Low is 5 percent or less. Aim low in saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol and sodium. High is 20 percent or more. Aim high in vitamins, minerals and fiber.


Foods with more than one ingredient are required to have an ingredient list on the label. Ingredients are listed in descending order by weight, so those in the largest amounts are listed first. Look for products with the fewest amount of ingredients possible. Choose those that have clean ingredients or whole foods you can pronounce and that you would use to cook with at home; like olive oil instead of hydrogenated starch hydrolysate. Put back items with long ingredient lists (those with more than about five).


The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends limiting the amount of added sugars you consume to no more than half of your daily discretionary calories allowance. For most American women, that’s no more than 100 calories per day, or about 6 teaspoons of sugar. For men, it’s 150 calories per day, or about 9 teaspoons. Added sugar is hiding in many foods. You’ll know if the sugar contained on the label is naturally occurring or “added sugar” by looking at the ingredient list. For example, canned peaches will have some grams of sugar listed because of the natural sugars in fruit. That’s OK as long as you eat a proper serving size. If you check the ingredient list and see sugar, corn syrup or fructose listed, you’ll want to put that can back on the shelf. Instead, choose one packed in water or fruit juice. Better yet, choose fresh fruit.  


The daily value for protein is 50g per day based on a 2,000-calorie diet. The percentage daily value for protein is not required on the label. Protein helps your body build and repair cells and tissue, and protein-rich foods help us stay full longer. Eat moderate portions of lean meat, poultry, fish, eggs, low-fat milk, yogurt and cheese, plus beans and peas, peanut butter, seeds and soy products.


Our body needs healthy fats in order to function properly. But saturated fat and trans fat are linked to an increased risk of heart disease, so keep those foods to a minimum. Look for foods that contain unsaturated fats like mono and polyunsaturated fats. These actually can help lower cholesterol levels and reduce your risk of heart disease. Healthy fats can be found in nuts, fish, avocados and olives.

Shop Around, Literally

Before you even make it to the packaged goods aisles, first “shop the perimeter” of the store and fill up your cart with whole foods. It’s no secret that a diet rich in fresh fruits and veggies is key to a healthy and fit lifestyle. So start in the produce section and choose items with a variety of colors, as each offers beneficial vitamins and minerals. They are all low in calories and high in nutrients. Next, visit the fish and meat counter and choose unprocessed, lean proteins such as salmon, chicken and turkey. Avoid highly processed lunch meats as they usually contain a lot of sodium. If your cart is filled with whole, healthy foods, there isn’t much space left for processed, packaged goods.


healthy recipes for ohio familiesRECIPE: PASTA FROM THE PANTRY

You’re running late to get the kids off the bus, then you’ve got to rush to gymnastics and over to Girl Scouts. There’s definitely no time to stop at the grocery store. Weeknight meals can get very tricky. Here’s an idea for a healthy dinner you can make with items you are certain to have in your pantry. It’s quick and simple and helps save you money, too. And by using up items you already have, you’re also helping to reduce food waste.


  • 12 oz. pasta (whatever you’ve got, but preferably whole wheat penne or rigatoni)
  • 2 tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 garlic clove, minced (or 1/2 tsp. garlic powder)
  • 1 can diced tomatoes (undrained, or 2 chopped tomatoes)
  • 1 can beans (cannellini, great northern or garbanzo)
  • 2 cups fresh or frozen spinach
  • 1/2 cup pitted olives, sliced (kalamata or black)
  • 1 tsp. dried oregano or basil
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon pepper
  • 1/2 cup parmesan or feta cheese


Cook pasta according to package directions. Meanwhile, in a large skillet, heat oil over medium heat. Add garlic and cook until fragrant. Add tomatoes and beans, and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer 5 to 10 minutes. Add spinach, olives, herbs, salt and pepper and cook over medium heat until the spinach wilts down. Stir often. Drain pasta. Top with tomato sauce and a sprinkle of cheese. You could also top it with grilled chicken or shrimp if you’ve got it.

Ashley Weingart is the Founder of Perfectly Imperfect Produce, a Cleveland-based company that delivers mixed boxes of fresh fruits and vegetables right to your door. The subscription service aims to reduce food waste while making healthy food more affordable for everyone. The items might be a little imperfect on the outside, but they are always fresh and delicious on the inside. Learn more at perfectlyimperfectproduce.com.

About the author

Ashley Weingart is the mother of three young children and she's always running somewhere. Whether she's chasing after her two-year-old with her craft scissors in his hand, hurrying to get dinner on the table, rushing to finish yard work, or literally running for exercise, she's always on the go. Many of her favorite daily tasks have something else in common; scissors, or sKissors as her littlest one calls them. Garden scissors, kitchen scissors, craft scissors, children’s safety scissors, she's nearly always got one of them in hand. Her blog documents her adventures as a busy mom on the run making time to have her fun. Visit www.runningwithskissors.com. Ashley is on Twitter @RunningSkissors and Facebook at Running with Skissors.

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