5 Nutrition red flags to spot in packed foods - Dietitians

Dietitians share tips on how to get through confusing and unclear nutrition labels to make better product choices.

5 food value red flags on nutrition labels - Dietitians

For most people, nutrition jargon on products is too confusing so they trust manufacturers to do right by what they say. There can be too much to pay attention to or understand when it comes to choosing nutrient-rich foods.


Dietitians Amy Goodson, MS, RD, CSSD, LD, author of The Sports Nutrition Playbook, and Sydney Greene, MS, RDN, from Eat This, talk about the warning signs to look out for on products.

Read on to understand what you need to avoid and how to catch misleading marketing during your grocery shopping.


These labels do not automatically mean that an item is healthy or high in nutrients. Food regulation bodies do not have strict criteria on what either means. So it can be misleading what nutritional benefits it has.

"For example, granola could be made with 'all-natural' ingredients like oats, oil, coconut, and maple syrup, but the amount of sweetener used in production could be so high that the granola is more like a dessert than a breakfast food," says Greene.

Another red flag is that organic describes the processes of raising the animal, how it was manufactured, and what practices were used. So the claim is not about the ingredients but how the product was made, according to Greene.

This does not mean all items that are considered organic are bad.

"Looking for organic is a personal preference, and you can still eat just as healthy by purchasing conventional food, too," says Goodson.


According to Goodson, most people are taught to look at the fat content section but the saturated fat section needs more attention.

A product with large amounts of saturated fat is a red flag for your cholesterol health. The recommended intake a day is 13 grams. However, Goodson advises taking home products with 1 gram or less of saturated fat.

"Large intakes of saturated fat consumed regularly can contribute to an increase in LDL ('bad') and total cholesterol. Typically, saturated fat is found in baked goods, higher-fat red meat, creamy sauces, and spreads, and some packaged snack foods," says Goodson.


Some food products have enticing promises on the front of the package but that does not guarantee that they deliver on that promise when you look at the nutrition label.

"A product might say 'whole wheat' on the package, but then the first ingredient can be 'enriched wheat flour,' a processed type of wheat flour. This is because if a product had 'whole wheat flour,' as its first ingredient, the front of the package would have to say '100% whole wheat.'" says, Goodson.

Less might mean 'still high'

Another red flag is the use of the word 'less'. Examples include less fat, less sugar, and less sodium, among others.

However, the percentage that the product has less of is usually about the regular content of that specific product.


"When a snack food says '25% less fat' on the front of the package, that means '25% less fat concerning the regular version of that product'—not all of the products in that food category," says Goodson.

So a product could still have high-fat content but the marketing message makes it seem like a lesser percentage means it's less.

You may not be able to get away from sugar but a red flag is grams that are more than what could be considered a few.

"There is not a set number for added sugar on the nutrition facts label that you should pay attention to, my dietitian rule of thumb is to look for foods with only a few grams of added sugar or less," says Goodson.


Sugar placement

Another red flag is if sugar is first on the list of ingredients, especially if the product is not candy or baked goods. It could mean that there's more sugar than other ingredients.

Sugar disguises

Look out for the sneaky way labels refer to ingredients. Some words are disguises for added sugar.

"Ingredients that count as added sugar are sugar, cane sugar, fructose, high-fructose corn syrup, corn syrup, honey, agave nectar, maple syrup, molasses, dextrose, maltodextrin, turbinado, and rice syrup—just to name a few," says Goodson.


"There are over 60 different names for sugar. So, it is important to research ingredients that you are unsure of. If you see an ingredient with "syrup" in the name or a word ending in '-ose,' you can assume it is most likely sugar. Examples of the sneakiest ones are brown rice syrup, any form of fruit juice, barley malt, or coconut nectar," says Greene.

Fiber is crucial in digestion, blood sugar balance, and overall health. Although it's mainly got from fruits and vegetables, it can be consumed in products like cereal, whole-grain bread, and pasta.

A big red flag is when a grain product contains zero fiber on the nutrition label.

"If you are shopping for granola bars, crackers, pasta, cereal, waffles, bread, bagels, and the like, and the nutrition facts label has zero grams of fiber, look for another whole grain brand," says Goodson.


Lack of fiber in whole grain foods means that the product was highly processed, according to Greene.

These red flags are simply ways to help shoppers have more confidence when purchasing and can't decide from the confusing lingo and words.


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