The most nutritious foods are the ones that don’t come with packaging or labels such as the fresh foods found on the outside perimeter of your grocery store. While I recommend that you avoid the packaged foods that you find in the middle aisles as much as possible, I know that in real life relying on a box or jar can often mean the difference between a home-cooked meal and the drive-through.

That’s where a little savvy shopping comes in. Taking the time to read each package and knowing how to decode the (sometimes outrageous) claims and nutrition information will help you make smarter decisions when shopping.

Food packaging is designed to well, sell food and not educate you on nutrition. Buzzwords are added to labels to grab your attention when scanning crowded shelves, but these claims such as “all natural” or “no trans-fats” don’t make a food healthy. In fact, they often don’t mean anything at all!

Review Ingredients First

The best approach is to ignore the marketing hype and head straight to the list of ingredients – the most important part of a packaged food label.

Before you even look at how many calories, grams of fat or sugar a food contains you need to know where these things are coming from. There is a big difference between a food that has 25 grams of carbohydrates from whole grains and one that has 25 grams of carbohydrates from added sugars.

Here’s what to look out for:

  • A short list of ingredients that reads like a recipe, not a science experiment.
  • Avoid words like modified, concentrated, hydrogenated or artificial.
  • Sugar and salt often go by other names such as glucose or sodium in packaged foods, so make sure to read each ingredient carefully instead of just scanning for highlights.
  • Ingredients are listed in order of weight so if sugar is listed as the first ingredient that food is primarily made of sugar!

Once the ingredients have passed your healthy-check it’s time to move on to the nutrition panel, the black and white box that sets out the nutrition facts. Here you’ll find the nutrition breakdown of the food, which includes calories, fat, protein, cholesterol, sodium, carbohydrates and sugar, as well as a few vitamins or minerals.

Beware Serving Sizes

The nutrition information is based on the serving size listed on the nutrition label, not necessarily for the whole package. Make sure that you’re paying attention to the serving size when reviewing labels and when you are consuming the food. There may be a big difference between how much you serve yourself and what the label sets out.

The Nutrition Facts Dilemma

Nutrition panels set out % Daily Value, this is the recommended daily amount of each nutrient in the product based on a diet of around 2,000 calories a day. This is where reading nutrition labels becomes tricky because these numbers don’t consider our individual needs. What I need as a young breastfeeding mother is different from the needs of an older diabetic man.

I like to use these facts as a guide, but not the ultimate decision maker when I look for packaged foods to feed my family. Remember that where these nutrients are coming from is the most important piece of the puzzle.

While many packaged foods are loaded with sugar, salt and artificial ingredients, there are some healthy options available that can help make dinner time a breeze. Taking the time to read and compare our packaged food options can help you make smart choices at the grocery store.