How to Read a Food Label

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Dr. Z

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The processing of foods and food-like substances strips the fiber, vitamins, and minerals out of the food source, making it an empty shell lacking nutrition. Companies have to fortify (add back certain vitamins) to make those foods consumer-ready. These same companies also add hidden toxic fats, salts, and sugars in order to increase shelf-life and taste. We have been trained to read the top section of a food label (calories, fat, salt, and protein) but not the important part—the ingredients. Many packaged foods are loaded with junk hidden among the ingredients.

Do you know what you are about to eat? Could you identify or even pronounce all of the ingredients on the label? Are the ingredients natural or synthetic? Do you know what all of them are? The only way to know what you are eating is by reading the ingredients rather than just the top of the label. On the label, look at:

Sugar.  In the top portion of the label, see how many grams of sugar are listed. Check the ingredients to see if any sugars are among the first 3 ingredients. Note: 4 grams of sugar equals one teaspoon. The ingredients listed on this popular “health” cereal label to the left show that 3/4 of a cup (1 serving size) contains 10 grams of sugar; 10 divided by 4 is 2.5. Therefore, one serving of this cereal contains 2.5 teaspoons of sugar.

There are 10 sources of processed sugars in this cereal. Can you find and identify them all? 

Fat. The top portion of the label indicates the amounts of different types of fat. Monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats are healthful. Saturated fats—those found in animal foods like grass-fed beef, and plant-based foods like coconut, are also healthful. However, steer clear of trans-fats, which are synthetic and extremely harmful to the body. Look at the list of ingredients. If you see the words ‘hydrogenated’ or ‘partially hydrogenated,’ do not buy. Those are both types of trans fats. Beware of the ingredient ‘vegetable oil,’ which is easily oxidized, making it hazardous to your health.

Salt. Salt is a mineral substance made of sodium and chloride; both are essential to good health. However, the salt found in many processed foods is processed salt. Many times the sodium content in packaged foods is a synthetic salt called monosodium glutamate (MSG). Research is showing MSG to be a neurotoxin that can be hazardous to your health. In order to determine if the sodium content of a food is too high, here is my formula: the amount of sodium should not exceed the number of calories in an individual serving.

Artificial flavors and colorings. Stay away from toxic, unnatural food dyes and flavors. Many synthetic food dyes are made from petrochemicals (petroleum-based). Why would you eat anything labeled artificial?


When choosing packaged or processed foods, look for ones that have few ingredients (5 or less), which you recognize and can pronounce. Shop the perimeter of the grocery store and bypass the dairy section. It is in the perimeter where you will find whole, unprocessed, real food. Remember, whole foods have no labels or multi-syllabic ingredients. What are the ingredients in an apple? Apple.

Categories: Health
About The Author
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Dr. Robert Zembroski is a Physician, Board-Certified Chiropractic Neurologist, Clinical Nutritionist, specialist in Functional Medicine, author and public speaker. Twenty-one years in private practice helped Dr. Zembroski to become an expert in health topics from heart disease, diabetes, obesity, cancer, hormone-related issues, neurological dysfunction and more. Currently, Dr. Zembroski is the director of The Darien Center for Functional Medicine, in Darien, Connecticut. For more from Dr. Zembroski visit

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