How to Read a Nutrition Label

What you don't notice on nutrition labels can hurt you

By Leanna Skarnulis
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Feature

Reviewed By Brunilda Nazario, MD

Remember being a kid and tearing open the cereal box to get the special decoder ring? Today's cereals should come with a ring you can use to crack the code of their nutrition labels. For those who understand its secrets, the nutrition label holds valuable information for winning the war on fat. Since there is no special ring, we'll give you the skinny on reading nutrition labels.

Beware of the Front Label Tease

"Heart Healthy!" "Enriched With Calcium and Vitamins!" "Low fat!" The front label is where manufacturers can say whatever they want. But when you look at the nutrition facts on the back you might wonder if the two labels refer to the same product. "Speed read the front label and go straight to the nutrition facts," says Kerry McLeod, author of The Last Diet Book Standing. She tells WebMD why the following front label terms should be red flags:

  • Fortified, enriched, added, extra, and plus. This means nutrients such as minerals and fiber have been removed and vitamins added in processing. Look for 100% whole-wheat bread, and high-fiber, low-sugar cereals.
  • Fruit drink. This means there's probably little or no real fruit and a lot of sugar. Instead look for products that say "100% Fruit Juice."
  • Made with wheat, rye, or multigrains. These products have very little whole grain. Look for the word "whole" before the grain to ensure that you're getting a 100% whole-grain product.
  • Natural. The manufacturer started with a natural source, but once it's processed the food may not resemble anything natural. Look for "100% All Natural" and "No Preservatives."
  • Organically grown, pesticide-free, or no artificial ingredients. Trust only labels that say "Certified Organically Grown."
  • Sugar-free or fat-free. Don't assume the product is low-calorie. The manufacturer compensated with unhealthy ingredients that don't taste very good and, here's the kicker, have no fewer calories than the real thing.