Food Sleuth: How to Read Front-of-Package Labels

Do you ever find yourself wondering how healthy certain items at the grocery store really are? When you see bright wording on the package like “cholesterol-free” or “natural,” those foods can seem pretty enticing in terms of health benefits. There is a lot more to it than just what those labels say.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) oversees the regulation of food labeling. This includes the Nutrition Facts label and ingredients list, but also that eye-catching, carefully designed front-of-package promotion that draws your attention so that the product will find its way into your shopping cart more easily than others. While the FDA requires that these claims must be true, sharp marketing minds may try to trick you into making an uninformed choice.

Front-of-package labeling, while true, may not reflect the most important aspects of the nutrition of the product. The claims may make the food sound more nutritious than it is, or may distract you from less-than-shining aspects of the product. Here are some examples that may trip you up:

  1. High, low, reduced, good source, free, etc. (i.e., high fiber, low sodium, reduced fat) – these claims must meet specific government definitions related to the amount of the nutrient in question. However, these levels are relative to comparable products. Check out the Nutrition Facts label and compare it to similar products to find out where it really stands.
  2. Cholesterol-free – watch out for this on foods that only contain plants. Plants don’t have cholesterol in them anyway, so even though it is true, this claim may be used to distract from less-desirable aspects of a food (for example, mixed nuts that have excessive amounts of salt added).
  3. Natural and organic – ‘natural’ means the product does not contain synthetic or artificial ingredients, while ‘organic’ refers to the methods used to grow or produce the food. These are often equated with ‘healthy,’ a term that is defined by the FDA using criteria that limits fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, and sodium, as well as sets minimum amounts for vitamins, minerals, and other beneficial nutrients. While products may be ‘natural’ or ‘organic,’ they may not be ‘healthy.’
  4. Made with Whole Grain – this claim can be made even if all the grain in the product isn’t whole grain; the whole grain may only comprise a small percentage of the total grain. To reap the full benefit of whole grains, look for 100% Whole Grain products and check the ingredients list to make sure whole grain is one of the first ingredients.

Check out this video from Carlene Thomas, RD, for a great example of how to avoid the pitfalls of front-of-label marketing:

When it comes to front-of-label packaging, remember that the food producer has an entire marketing department whose job is to get you to buy their product. They will do everything they can to convince you their product is great so you don’t question it. But you’re not defenseless – if the front-of-package labeling is the devil on one shoulder, the Nutrition Facts label and the ingredient list are the angels on the other shoulder. These sources of obligatory honesty will tell you the truth about the foods you’re buying, so use them to your advantage to make the healthiest choices for yourself.

Have you ever been tricked by front-of-package labeling? Share your stories and what you found out in the comments!



U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Food label helps consumers make healthier choices. Published October 14, 2014. Accessed March 15, 2015.


5 Ways to Make More Effective Health Decisions

How many decisions do you make in a day? I’m not talking just about the big, obvious decisions like whether to apply for a new job or where to go on vacation. I’m talking about the small, almost imperceptible, day-to-day decisions that affect your health:

Should I have a piece of candy from the bowl on my co-worker’s desk?

Should I increase the rate on the treadmill for the last 0.1 mile?

Should I have pickles on my sandwich?

I’m not here to tell you what choices to make in the face of decisions like these – either way you choose could be appropriate depending on what the rest of your day or the rest of your week has been like, and which choices will support your mental and social health, as well (check out my article on total well-being here).

I am here to provide you with encouragement. The constant decisions we all make on a daily basis take their toll. Research has indicated that the more decisions a person makes, the more likely they are to experience “decision fatigue” and find themselves giving in to temptation. You can use this information to your advantage.

  1. Recognize that the more decisions you make, the harder it will be to continue making good choices. If you are aware of the role decision fatigue may be playing in your health, you will be more able to counteract the effect when you see it popping up in your decisions.

  2. Turn off autopilot. Be mindful of each decision you make that affects your health. Be mentally present in each decision. “Going with the flow” may lead you to making a poor choice or continuing a behavior that you have been wanting or trying to change.

  3. Set yourself up for success. You can make good decisions easier for yourself by making adjustments to your environment. For example, pack a gym bag to take with you in the morning and go straight to the gym after work to pre-empt the decision whether to leave your house again after you get home. Try packing a healthy snack (great examples here) so that you have a better option available in that afternoon slump besides the vending machine at work.

  4. Flex your decision-making muscle. You’ll be making many of the same decisions repeatedly. When you buy bread at the store, you will have to decide between white and whole-grain bread every single time. The more you make the decisions to buy the whole-grain bread, the easier that decision becomes until it doesn’t really seem like a decision anymore, but more of a habit.

  5. Use a mantra. Come up with a mantra – a short, meaningful phrase – to coach yourself through those tough decisions and keep working toward your health goals. It doesn’t matter if come up with your own or borrow one – it just needs to be meaningful and motivational for you. My personal mantra is, “Getting better, getting stronger.” It helps me through both health decisions and tough workouts.

You have to make health decisions every single day. Even though it may become easier to make those decisions, you have to be mindful and make the best choice for your overall health that you can each time a decision comes up. One choice about one decision will not make or break your health, because health is a lifelong journey, not a moment in time.



Tierney J. Do you suffer from decision fatigue? The New York Times. Published August 17, 2011. Accessed February 21, 2015.

Anderson J. Think yourself fit! SparkPeople. Accessed February 21, 2015.

Snack Happy

If you’ve never felt famished two hours before your next meal or undermined your healthy eating plans by desperately grabbing for a less-than-nutritious snack simply because it’s available, this might not be the article for you.

If, however, you are like me and can go from content to ravenous in a moment or are prone to making poor food choices when junk food is the only thing available to stop your stomach’s insistent growling, well, you’ve come to the right place!

Snacking is tricky business. It is an entirely individualized balance of planning and preference. Here are a few factors that make snacking unique for each person:

  1. Snacking is not for everyone. Some people prefer to eat only at meals, and that is just fine.
  2. How much and how often you need a snack is based on your own body cues.
  3. Your body cues can change from day to day and may not always be consistent, so learning to pay attention to them is important! (Check out my post on Mindful Eating here.)

There are also lots of issues unrelated to body cues that people consider when they make decisions about what and when to eat, make the waters of snacking even murkier:

  1. Time of day and when the next conventional mealtime will happen.
  2. Whether there will be another opportunity to eat before being hungry.
  3. Hedonic characteristics of food – things like taste, smell, and appearance that can make someone want to experience that food.
  4. Weight management: People might think they need to avoid snacks to lose weight, but going to a meal feeling extremely hungry can lead to overeating. Snacking can help keep hunger in check and aid in making good food choices.

With all these snacking influences swirling around, it is important to arm yourself with preparedness to eat at the right time for the right reasons.

The best solution is to plan by keeping a snack on hand as often as possible. Choosing the right kind of snack will go a long way toward making effective snacking strategies.

snackA good snack should be a carbohydrate plus a protein. Carbohydrates (called ‘carbs’ for short) are starches and sugars frequently found in foods like fruits, vegetables, grains, and dairy. Proteins are available mainly in meats, eggs, dairy products, and legumes (like beans, peas, and nuts). The carb + protein combination provides an optimal mix of energy (from the carbs) and fullness (from the protein).

To add even more power to your snack, choose nutrient dense sources of carbs and protein. Nutrient density is a term that nutrition professionals use to refer to the amount of nutrients such as vitamins and minerals are found in a food. Nutrient dense foods include fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins, and dairy. Picking carb + protein pairings from these categories is a great way to plan snacks that will give you an extra dose of nutrition.

 yogurt and fruitHere are some ideas to get you started:

Yogurt with fruit and granola

Whole grain English muffin with nut butter

Raisins and almonds

Hard-boiled egg and whole grain toast

Banana or apple with peanut butter

Cottage cheese and peaches in light syrup

Melon or pear and cheese

Sugar snap peas and hummus

Tuna or chicken salad on whole grain pita

Whole grain crackers with cheese

Baked potato with salsa and cheese, or bean chili

Trail mix (this is great to keep on hand in your car or bag)

Whole wheat tortilla with refried beans, cheese, and salsa, heated in microwave

Banana and peanut butter rolled in whole wheat tortilla

Popcorn with nuts

Some final considerations for planning your snacks:

  1. Plan snacks that you want to eat.
  2. If your snack needs to be chilled, make sure you have a refrigerator or insulated lunch box with ice packs available.
  3. If you’re going to be out-and-about, make sure your snack is easy to eat and doesn’t require a lot of utensils.
  4. If you don’t end up feeling hungry, know that you don’t have to eat your snack!

What are your favorite go-to snacks?



Nutrition & Weight Control course notes. University of Wyoming, 2012.

Nutrition411. Healthy snacks. Nutrition411. Published August 31, 2012. Accessed January 30, 2015.

Nutrition411. Snacks: How to choose healthy ones. Nutrition411. Published January 1, 2009. Accessed January 30, 2009.