Keys to Truly Understanding Food Labels

Have you been there? I have. If you haven't, please read this article.

Been where?

Standing in the grocery aisle looking at one or more packages of food and feeling as though your brain is melting from all the confusing words and claims on the labels...

Have you tried to read, decipher, and understand food labels -- and given up?

Let's be clear: both the food industry and the federal government (who are intimately in bed with each other) have no interest in providing you with all the information about the brands you buy in your typical supermarket. Every time the issue of improving food labels arises, Big Food quickly shuts it down or puts a heavy hand on any improvements.

Do you have to be a detective to safely feed yourself and your family? Sadly, yes.

The good news is that you only need to focus on a couple of key elements of any food label. Most of the stuff on the label is there to meet certain government standards, none of which really apply to us as consumers -- it's more there for the dietitians and folks who have been told to count calories or monitor the intake of certain ingredients.

This article will provide you with some background on food labels -- and key tools to help you make better purchases of products with better ingredients.

Food Labeling Overview

Don't let the food marketers trick you.

Something that is labeled "healthy" or "natural" may be anything but... just as an item labeled with "no preservatives" or "no artificial ingredients" does not mean there are no harmful ingredients in the products. There are limited government restrictions for food marketers using these claims.

By law, ingredients must be listed in order of predominance and weight, from highest quantity to smallest (though some manufacturers even cheat the law here by using, for example, three different types of sugars, so it appears at first glance that there is not much sugar used in the product).

Here are just two samples of the ingredients list of commonly purchased items -- a salad dressing and a package of prepared chocolate-chip cookies. Check out the artificial flavorings, toxic seed oils, chemical preservatives, and sugars used in both of these products.

Ingredients of one brand of ranch salad dressing: vegetable oil, water, vinegar, egg yolks, sugar, salt, algin derivative (stabilizer), spices, parsley flakes, onion, garlic, celery seed, capers, benzoate of soda (preservative), calcium disodium EDTA (preservative).

Ingredients of one brand of chocolate-chip cookies: enriched flour (wheat flour, niacin, reduced iron, thiamin mononitrate, riboflavin, folic acid); semi-sweet chocolate chunks: sugar, chocolate, dextrose, cocoa butter, milkfat, soy lecithin (emulsifier), salt, vanilla; sugar; soybean oil; semi-sweet chocolate chips: sugar, chocolate, cocoa butter, dextrose, soy lecithin (emulsifier); partially hydrogenated cottonseed oil; fructose; leavening: baking soda, ammonium phosphate; salt; molasses; high fructose corn syrup; whey (from milk); soy lecithin (emulsifier); artificial flavor, caramel color.

How to Review Food Labels

Skip everything on the label and go directly to the ingredients list and carefully review exactly what you're considering buying. Everything else on the label is just noise -- don't believe any of the labels listing the product as "healthy," "natural," "sugar-free," "low-fat," "low-calorie," "no artificial flavors."

If you follow a specific diet or eating philosophy, note that these labels can also be falsely stated: "keto," "gluten-free," "whole-grain," "plant-based."

Go directly to the back of the label and examine the ingredients list. Please note that this ingredient list does not need to list EVERY ingredient AND also note that not every ingredient used in making the product has been tested for safety; the FDA allows food manufacturers to use a large number of "generally recognized as safe" (GRAS) ingredients, many untested.

Then there's the issue of sugar and added sugar. I avoid ALL products with added sugars, but not everyone is aware of how toxic sugar is to our health, nor how insidious sugars are in almost ALL packaged foods, sweet or savory. Just know, as you look at the ingredients list that manufacturers are allowed to list each sugar separately -- and that there are MANY different names for sugar on food labels (including sugar, corn syrup, high-fructose corn syrup, dextrose, dextrin, glucose, fructose, agave, maltodextrin, maltose, ethyl maltol, and lactose).

Finally, you should examine the oil used in the product -- and most packaged foods use some kind of "vegetable" oils. I avoid ALL products using any of these low-cost/low-quality conventional (and even organic) oils. Instead, I look for products using olive, avocado, or coconut oils.

The cheapest products on the store shelf will list vegetable oil (which is actually usually soybean oil), canola oil, or corn oil. (Other conventional oils include safflower, sunflower, grapeseed.) All of these oils are actually "seed oils" because the oil is extracted from the seeds using a harsh chemical process that includes solvent and bleaching agents. Sounds appetizing, right? These oils are toxic to the body.

Many health-conscious consumers develop a rubric or shortcut when examining ingredient labels so that shopping trips don't turn into all-day excursions:

  • Only buy products with five or fewer ingredients

  • Only buy products with real ingredients (eggs, butter, onion, garlic, etc.)

  • Only buy products with ingredients you can pronounce

  • Avoid all products with added sugars, vegetable oils, unknown chemicals/preservatives

Final Thoughts About Food Labels

By becoming more accustomed to reading the ingredients list before you buy, and choosing products that limit or exclude the bad ingredients discussed in this article, you can gain confidence that the products you are buying are a healthy alternative for you and your family.

I have purposely eliminated from this discussion serving size, calories, or daily "nutritional" values that are also included on food labels. Serving sizes have been improved (from the days when, for example, a single can of Coke was two servings), but I don't count calories and I don't believe in the FDA's food pyramid (which is skewed by decades of bad research) or list of daily values... but for some people, these elements can add some value.

Reviewing all the labels will be time-consuming at first, but once you've identified the good products, the shopping should get easier.

One final note about organic. Buying organic can be an added layer of protection against conventional growing and packaging (that often allows harsh chemicals, pesticides, and other unknown substances), but organic does not mean gold standard, as many organic products include added sugars and seed oils.

Tool to help in the grocery aisles: HonestFoodGuide is a great website that can assist you in better understanding food labels and ingredient lists.

Food Label Additional Resources

Dr. Randall Hansen is an advocate, educator, mentor, ethicist, and thought-leader... helping the world heal from past trauma. He is founder and CEO of, a network of empowering and transformative Websites, including

He is the author of the groundbreaking Triumph Over Trauma: Psychedelic Medicines are Helping People Heal Their Trauma, Change Their Lives, and Grow Their Spirituality and the well-received HEAL! Wholeistic Practices to Help Clear Your Trauma, Heal Yourself, and Live Your Best Life.

Dr. Hansen's focus and advocacy center around true healing ... healing that results in being able to live an authentic life filled with peace, joy, love. Learn more by visiting his personal Website, You can also check out Dr. Randall Hansen on LinkedIn.