Nutrition is a significant part of everyday health for all ages. However, most nurses and healthcare providers don’t get much classroom or clinical instruction on nutrition and managing dietary change during their basic education. (DiMaria-Ghalili et al., 2014). And yet, in spite of our relatively weak academic foundation, we routinely advise our patients to “eat a healthy diet.”
Lasting dietary change begins with a patients’ ability to make healthy, or at least healthier, food choices. One of the foundational skills involved in making those healthier choices is reading food labels. But, if nurses and other healthcare providers have not learned these basics, who is teaching our patients this skill?
As an NP in primary care, I observed that most of my patients who would benefit from meeting with a dietician or nutritionist did not actually “qualify” for these types of specialist encounters due to insurance limitations. And many of those who qualified failed to make and keep “extra” appointments. So, food label reading remained an untaught, unlearned skill.
Do you feel confident enough in your own food-label reading abilities to teach your patients the basics? I had to do some extra studying to get myself there. Here’s how I’m leveraging what I learned.
The 3 Most Important Parts of a Food Package
I like to set the stage by pointing out 3 distinct parts of a food package—the front of the package, the nutrition facts panel or “label,” and the ingredients list. These three parts contain key pieces of information that work together to help consumers make healthier food choices. Here’s what to look for, understand, and decide for each part of a food package.
Front of Package
Food manufacturers know the front of the package is the first thing consumers see on a grocery store shelf, so it’s prime marketing real estate. That’s why you’ll want to take a close, thoughtful, look at the front of the package through the eyes of a skeptic.
When you tune in and look carefully at the front of a food package, you’ll likely become aware of things you’ve never noticed before, even if it’s your favorite brand. Look at the names, descriptions, colors, images, designs. Be alert for key marketing words and phrases like reduced sodium, no sugar added, natural, low fat, or gluten free. What do these components suggest about what’s inside the package? And do the words and phrases really mean what you think they do?
The big takeaway is that the front of a food package is designed to sell the product, not to tell you what’s in it. And when you understand that attractive is not the same thing as healthy, you realize that many packaged foods are not as healthy as they may seem at first glance.
The appealing colors, images, and words that make a food product look and sound attractive can also create a “health halo,” an intangible feeling of goodwill and good health associated with the product. Food manufacturers keep this idea in mind when they design packaging and advertisements, because marketing studies repeatedly show that when you think a food is healthier, you'll eat more of it. (Egan, 2019).
It’s also important to understand that marketing words may carry hidden meanings or implications. For example, the word “reduced,” as in reduced-sodium or reduced-fat, means the product has 25% less fat than the original version. (Egan, 2019). While that’s a step in the right direction, be aware that the total amount, even when reduced, may still be far more than ideal.
Furthermore, whenever an ingredient such as gluten is taken out of a food, something else—like extra sugar or salt—is generally added back in its place. These added ingredients may be more unhealthy than the original ingredient that was removed.
The front of the package is your first stop in gathering clues for deciding whether the product supports your health or not. Notice what you’re drawn to, and what you’re looking for: Does what attracts you match up with what you know will support your health goals? Of course, if you aren’t sure what your health goals are stop and get clear about them before you go any further.
Nutrition Facts Panel
After you’ve looked at the front of the package with a critical eye, continue your quest for information by looking at the nutrition facts (NF) panel, also referred to as the nutrition facts label. This federally regulated piece of information tells you how much of which nutritional component is in the product.
The NF panel is your go-to resource for discovering how many calories are in your favorite foods. And it also reveals the percentage of fat, carbohydrates, protein, sodium, vitamins, and minerals that are present. The NF began appearing on food labels in the early 1990s, as required by the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act. (Egan, 2019).
No matter what your dietary goals happen to be, or how they may change, the NF panel can help you make choices that support them. Paying attention to the serving size, calories, percent daily value, added sugars and other nutrients listed on the NF panel will help you decide how consuming the product will affect your goals.
The FDA updated the appearance and requirements of the NF panel in 2016 to better assist consumers in making healthy food choices. The revised NF panel emphasizes total calories, makes serving size information more prominent, shows added sugars, and should be official on all US packaging by 2021 (Egan, 2019). Compare the original and new NF panels for more details. (Side-by-Bide Comparison: Original Label versus New Label, 2019).
The numbers on the NF panel are most helpful to you when your personal intake goals are clear. Are you cutting calories? Reducing sodium? Reducing sugar? The NF panel shows you the extent to which consuming an individual product can help support your efforts to meet your goals.
And when you look at the NF panel for everything you consume, it can help you see your real-time and cumulative food intake in the context of your overall dietary goals. In fact, the NF can be used to help you see and track your “food numbers” in much the same way you may already be tracking other health numbers, like blood sugar and blood pressure.
The key here is learning to notice the numbers associated with food. It’s not so much about the numbers themselves as it is about the trends over time. The bottom line is: The NF panel cannot help you if you don’t have clear goals and sincere commitment to meeting them.
Use the numbers from the NF to help you decide how the product supports or detracts from your daily intake goals. Ask yourself: Does this food support my health goals? How will choosing this food now influence my other food choices throughout the rest of the day? Use the numbers to help you decide whether to consume the food inside the package you’re looking at or make a different choice.
What are the options are available to you? Knowing the array of options available to you is a major step in making healthier choices. If you determine the product does not support your health goals, will you choose to consume this food anyway? Or will you look for a different, more supportive, option? Or might you choose to do something else, like schedule extra exercise to offset any over consumption of a specific nutrient? Ultimately, what action will you take?
Finally, take a look at the ingredients list. Ingredients lists are printed in descending order by quantity. (Bjarnadottir, 2019). the item listed first on the list is the most prevalent ingredient.
Don’t let the ingredients confuse you. Instead, use the list as a way to spark your curiosity about what’s in your food, and start conversations with your health professionals and your family.
When looking at the ingredients list, pay special attention to the number of items listed, the order in which they are listed, and any specific ingredients of interest. In general, shorter ingredients lists indicate a product has undergone minimal processing.
Look for shorter lists and ingredients you recognize. Be alert for allergens like dairy derivatives (whey protein), nuts, and shellfish. Avoid products listing sugar as a first ingredient. Pay attention to the order of items listed. Be alert for ingredients you cannot pronounce or are unfamiliar with, as these may indicate the presence of toxic chemicals and dyes, hidden sugars, non-nutritive fillers etc.
Compare the nutrients list to the nutrition facts panel to see how the two correspond. Let the comparison and your conclusions guide you to discover the best ways to support your health.
Because ingredients are listed in descending order, the product contains the most of the first thing on the list. This helps you put the product’s nutritional value in perspective, in light of your health goals. For example, if one of your health goals is to reduce the amount of sugar in your diet, and you’re deciding whether to eat a certain product, but the first ingredient listed sugar, you may decide to choose a different product.
The ingredients list also relates back to the front of the package. If something has been taken out, the ingredients list is where you can find out what has been added back instead.
Ultimately, what’s in the package ends up in your body. Cross reference the ingredients list with the front of the package and the nutrition facts panel.
Ask yourself: Does this item contain ingredients that I wish to consume? What is the most prevalent ingredient in the product? Does this ingredient support your health goals? Is this product is as advertised, or is the marketing misleading?
Will you decide to consume this product? Do you feel confident and satisfied about your choice?
Here are some additional helpful tips for teaching your patients how to make healthier food choices:
Keep examples of food packaging in your clinic, exam room, or office so you can provide quick hands-on demonstrations with real products the patient is familiar with.
Encourage patients to get familiar with food labels at home where they have time to practice reading them, coming up with additional questions, and figuring things out.
Challenge patients to evaluate the packaged foods already in their home pantry to see whether they support their health goals or not. If not, offer support for small improvements such as looking for a low sodium version of a favorite brand, or trying a different brand with less sugar.
Advise patients to take their reading glasses with them to the grocery store.
Encourage patients to plan enough time in the store to read labels and make their healthiest decisions before they put items in the cart.
The bottom line is, your patients can’t eat a healthy diet if they don’t have the tools for making healthy choices in the first place. Learning how to read labels on packaged foods is a good first step toward making choices and decisions that support health goals. If you learn how, you can teach your patients whenever you have the chance. And you’ll be able to back up your instructions to “eat a healthy diet” with practical advice.
Question for Discussion
How can you use information about food packaging to help your patients manage dietary change?