HOME > Chowhound > General Topics >


Reading Food Labels - What do you seek/avoid?

in the last few years I have become a compulsive label reader - while I am not big purchaser of "convenience foods" we all need to buy products to some extent. In my effort to totally remove Trans Fat and HFCS from my larder I now read every label before it goes in my cart.

in addition to the above I avoid for anything with too long an ingredient list and extensive corn/soy derivatives. I find that by reading the back of the box/can/jar instead of believing what is on the front I am more confident in what I am purchasing - and not always necessarily paying more

here is one extreme example


Jif Reduced Fat Peanut Butter Spread :


Market Pantry Creamy All Natural Peanut Butter:


both cheap down market brands - one labeled to make it appear a "healthful" low fat alternative - which one would you feed your kids?

or this less extreme example I posted today about Thai Green Curries

Fresh Green Chili, Garlic, Wild Ginger, Shallot, Lemon Grass, Salt, Kaffir Lime, Sugar, Galangal, Spices ( Coriander seeds, Cumin, Cardamon, Tumeric ). Pepper

Water, Coconut milk (Coconut milk, cornstarch, guar gum, xanthan gum, carrageenan) Anaheim pepper puree, Tamari soy sauce (water, soybeans, wheat and salt), cilantro, Serrano pepper puree, cane sugar, ginger puree, lime juice concentrate, arrowroot powder, sea salt, organic shredded coconut, garlic, xanthan gum, dried coriander, dried cumin, dried lemongrass, shallots, white pepper

Things I no longer buy

Salad Dressing, Bread Crumbs, Most cookies, crackers and commercial baked goods, most "ice creams", flavored yoghurts

I don't make a religion about it or pretend I will come down with the black death if I ate a salad with wishbone dressing and box croutons but I do make best effort to know exactly what goes in my cart and in my mouth

Curious if other CH'ers compulsively read labels, what they look for and if it has changed their shopping habits. What surprised good and bad have you found?

  1. Click to Upload a photo (10 MB limit)
  1. I always read labels and will not buy products that contain sugar. We eat far too much sugar (any sweetening) in foods that don't need the stuff, for example mayonnaise.

    1. I have Type 2 diabetes so always check the label for sugar content. The diabetes nurse says I need to look for products with less than 10g sugars per 100g. It's fairly easy to do - although I have to say my morning muesli isnt all that enjoyable, even though it is virtuous.

      1. I limit purchases of products with any type of sugar or artificial sweetener, and look at the salt content

        2 Replies
        1. re: Pookipichu

          me too, except that i haven't weaned myself from artificial sweeteners yet. I am just asTOUNded by the fact that sugar (usually corn syrup) is in EVERYTHING processed. (What the heck is sugar doing in burritos plse?) And, i'll keep this rant short, but:

          Recent media tells us that Vegans and GF eaters have succeeded in getting the attention of food vendors and restaurants alike. If the food industry and the grocery industry were likewise contacted by the millions of Americans who seek low salt and low sugar foods (there MUST BE more of us than Vegans and GF eaters), don't you thnk we could affect some major change?

          1. re: opinionatedchef

            It's so hard to find products without some sort of sweetener. I've become leery of artificial sweeteners because they are used so indiscriminately since they are low calorie.

            Sometimes products have so much artificial sweetener I feel a headache from the sweetness. Also, I read that the sweetness tricks your body into producing insulin and is not good for your body long term.

        2. I don't usually buy "complex" food (i.e. highly transformed food like "Reduced Fat Peanut Butter Spread" )

          When I have to do it (mostly craving) I check the salt and fat content.

          14 Replies
          1. re: Maximilien

            Yes, I don't buy reduced fat anything, except milk ( 2%). I buy whole milk cheeses including mozzarella and whole milk yogurt ( which can be really hard to find here). I wish I had an easy source of raw milk again, we used to milk our own jersey and goats. Same thing with the chicken, duck and goose eggs.

            1. re: rasputina

              yes that's another one - whole fat dairy - all the time - its amazing how hard it is to find at the supermarket - sometimes - we have good sources here though - I do love raw milk but don't buy it often because I don't really drink milk and it seems pointless to cook with it. Whole milk plain yoghurt is such a versatile ingredient and yet is totally pushed out on the shelves for fat free vanilla BLEH

              1. re: JTPhilly

                Tell me about it. At our natural foods store I can only find one brand of whole milk plain yogurt. But there are rows and rows of non fat, it's so annoying.

                1. re: rasputina

                  I wish I could find low sugar dairy products that don't have artificial sweetener. I eat fruit without dipping them in sugar or "concentrating" their sugar so why do I need sweetener in a fruit yogurt.

                  1. re: Pookipichu

                    because yogurt is naturally sour. Can't you buy plain yogurt?

                    Flavored yogurt has always been sweet, even in the days when Dannon was the only national brand.

                    1. re: paulj

                      I'm not sure what your point is, regardless of whether yogurt is sour, they don't need to add sugar to the fruit. People have been pairing fruit with yogurt for hundreds of years without powdered sugar or grape juice concentrate. I'd like the option of buying a non-plain yogurt and not having to wash blueberries or strawberries, chop pineapple, etc.

                      1. re: Pookipichu

                        So you want to eat yogurt like they did a hundred years ago in Greece, but buy it with all the modern conveniences. The trick is to convince some marketing firm that you are big enough market niche.

                        1. re: paulj

                          Market it properly and people will buy it, give people the option... don't understand why you are so intent on negging on fruit yogurt without sweetener, I find it strange but I guess you have your reasons... only a few decades ago, soda consumption was through the roof, tastes can be cyclical, now people drink more bottled water, etc.

                      2. re: paulj

                        When Dannon was first introduced in the US, c. 1974 +/- (i remember finding it in college) it was more close to the French original: it was plain yogurt plopped on top of fruit (there used to be the occasional cherry pit in the containers). Nowadays it's overly-sweetened enhanced glop.

                        I'm lucky enough to have several varieties of whole-milk, plain yogurt at the store I frequent, but it's not the case everywhere. When I was in NY last month it was hard to find even in the vaunted Wegman's: shelf after shelf of flavored stuff, but only tiny containers of plain yogurt - I don't even think it was whole milk.

                        1. re: tardigrade

                          Dannon today is definitely not the product I grew up with although their new fruit on the bottom "throwback" product has fewer egregious ingredients than many commercial yogurts - I would love to see a label form a 1970s or 80s Dannon yoghurt and compare to todays

                          some interesting reading here

                          "To stimulate sales, Dannon in 1992 began test-marketing Sprinkl'ins, a yogurt for children filled with fruit, sugar, and mix-in candy bits. An employee at Grey Advertising, Dannon's agency, told a New York Times reporter, "Yogurt hasn't been very kid-friendly in the past because the taste was too sour. This is a way of creating a new generation of yogurt eaters." The inside of the package holding four small cups of Sprinkl'ins was printed with games and puzzles.

                          Nutritionists had nothing good to say about Sprinkl'ins; one compared it to junk food because of its high sugar content. Children, however, responded enthusiastically. Nationally introduced in 1993, Sprinkl'ins had sales of $43.9 million that year"

                          this hyper sweetening and artificialization of food products is emblematic of the decline in quality and healthfulness of many previously natural healthful foods - turning yoghurt into candy is not helping kids eat yoghurt it is just feeding kids more candy.

                          1. re: JTPhilly

                            Didn't you organize your crafts beads and buttons in recycled yogurt containers?

                  2. re: JTPhilly

                    Yes, that is my main gripe when passing by the dairy aisle too. I wish both the consumers and manufacturers could change that mentality.

                    1. re: vil

                      I hope that the whole "sugar bad, fat good" trend will help spur a shift - I do not understand removing the fat (with all of its nutrients) just to return the calories with tons of sugar and attempt to restore the texture with countless emulsifiers and then market it is a "health food". The food companies always claim "consumer preference" but I don't buy it - its all about profit.

                      1. re: JTPhilly

                        Unlikely to change soon, people love their sugar unfortunately.

              2. If it says Product of China I usually put it back.

                6 Replies
                1. re: miss_belle

                  not only do i put foods back that are the Products of China, i now also put cooking utensils and pots back that are the Products of China.

                  1. re: westsidegal

                    My partner & I also operate our own boycott of a country's products and havnt knowingly bought any in decades.

                    1. re: Harters

                      Is this difficult to do in the UK? Avoiding MIC products in the US is challenging to say the least I don't recall seeing too much in the way of USA food product in Europe but I also never really looked - I don't blame you though its quite interesting to compare USA vs Euro versions of the same product - not to mention the whole GMO thing

                    2. re: westsidegal

                      ...and that's because it might be tainted?

                      Can't say I'm a fan of what I read on the nutrition label of the average food product from the US either.

                    3. re: miss_belle

                      Same here, and when necessary, I look for alternatives made in Taiwan (although I am less and less sure about whether that is fine anymore).

                      Also, I notice that many labels these days say "Product of P.R.C." instead.

                      1. re: vil

                        I'm noticing more and more products labeled "Distributed by so and so USA" so you have no idea where it actually originated. But they want you to think USA. I avoid some of that stuff like the plague too.

                    4. The short answer is I avoid artificial sweeteners, shortening, margarine ( I'm a butter and lard girl) and I try and avoid white flour. I don't buy a lot of prepared stuff, because I prefer to bake my own. I don't buy baking mixes, I make most of our bread and baked goods myself and I grind my own flour. Although that doesn't stop my husband from buying oreos and pop tarts on occasion lol.

                      I make my own bread crumbs, salad dressings, marinades, bbq sauce, horseradish sauce and spice mixes. I can my own jams and stock and ferment sauerkraut. I've fermented yogurt and made butter but I buy both of those now.

                      I started buying Costco's natural peanut butter which is just made with valencia peanuts because we moved and the local place with the freshly ground peanut butter tastes horrible. I would love to grind my own but I can't find a fresh reasonably price source of valencia peanuts and we don't eat enough of it to really be worth buying them in bulk.

                      1. The main thing I look for in packaged food is the carb count per serving. I don't buy packaged crackers, cookies, cake mixes, puddings, ice cream, pies, etc. Nor do I purchase bread, rice, pasta, potatoes, etc. in any form except the whole wheat thin rounds and once in a while the double fiber wheat bread.

                        I seldom buy white flour anything, I do keep a can of Wondra for those times when I need a thickener or something.

                        I do buy fruit "spread" instead of jam or jelly. I don't care for most Low cal or low fat versions of foods such as yogurt or salad dressings or cheeses. I don't drink milk.

                        I'm not completely virtuous, but I really try, cause I'm the only one I'm feeding on a regular basis.

                        1. You should always make it a point to see how much PROTEIN you can obtain from eating certain foods. The more protein, the better. Keep your diet high in protein and low in carbohydrates.

                          Sugars or artificial sweeteners is something you should
                          limit in your diet. Check the labels for those.

                          Lastly, your fat intake. Don't eat a diet high in fat.

                          Look --> http://www.fda.gov/food/ingredientspa...

                          3 Replies
                          1. re: Cheese Boy

                            I thought this thread was to share what choices we make, and not about telling people what they should do.

                            1. re: rasputina

                              I was just offering some advice, that's all. The thread's subject line is what sent me down that path I guess. The OP asks right in the title, 'What do you seek/avoid?'. So I answered in a way that some might interpret as a mandate. (I never meant it to be that).
                              My apologies.

                            2. re: Cheese Boy

                              <Don't eat a diet high in fat.>
                              And your moniker is Cheese Boy.....

                              but your advice is certainly right on.

                            3. Sugars, HFCS, artificial sweeteners, soy, corn, wheat, trans fats, carrageenan, and seed oils are the big ones for me.

                              I buy very little that even comes in a package and stick with brands/ products I've vetted for the little I do so its pretty easy to avoid them.

                              7 Replies
                                1. re: opinionatedchef

                                  Carageenan is suspected of causing inflammation of the digestive tract and possibly cancers. I know it's in a lot of pet foods and causes IBS in animals.

                                  Seed oils? Maybe the high Omega 6s in some?

                                  1. re: mcf

                                    Gawd! Pet food. Luckily it's not in the brand I feed my dog. Thanks for that.

                                    1. re: EM23

                                      It's even in almost all the "premium" brands. I had a hard time finding high protein/low phosphorous, low carb, no junk food for my 15 y.o. cat with very early CRF. Fortunately someone turned me onto Wellness Healthy indulgences pouches. Her kidney problem as actually improved on it.

                                      1. re: mcf

                                        That's great for your kittay:-)

                                  2. re: opinionatedchef

                                    Carrageenan, as MCF mentioned, is a suspect ingredient and may contribute to leaky gut (and therefore a host of health issues.) It's easy to avoid that I have chosen to avoid it. And yes, seed oils are high in easily oxidized polyunsaturated fats (PUFAs) and pro-inflammatory omega-6 fatty acids. Again, easy to avoid so I err on the side of caution.

                                    1. re: weezieduzzit

                                      To be fair, I'm not sure omega 6s are necessarily inflammatory, just when one is out of balance with 3s, maybe?

                                2. Type 1 diabetic, so I look for carbs. In general, I aim for 100 carbs a day. I'm surprised how muched added sugar there is in packaged foods. If I'm trying to decide between two foods, I will buy the one with the most understandable ingredient list

                                  1. Because I've been low-carb for years, I don't buy much packaged food anymore. However, when I do, I always check the label for the carb content, of course, as well as sugar/HFCS etc. I avoid trans fats as well, but again, I don't have to worry about it much because most of my food comes without a label!

                                    1. Again, as always, I am the broken record about "enhanced" supermarket pork. Sure you can get pork that hasn't been injected with up to 12% salt water, but that costs over 12% more.

                                      I avoid "light", "lite", or low-fat versions of things that should be fatty and wonderful (cheese, sour cream, mayo, etc.)

                                      I also refuse to buy organic tomato products since they pack in puree instead of juice.

                                      9 Replies
                                      1. re: NonnieMuss

                                        Just curious, but why would it be considered a negative to pack in puree instead of juice? I'm guessing you are referring to diced and whole canned tomato?

                                        I won't buy tomato sauce after being annoyed that every can label I read was just tomato paste and water. I can do that at home.

                                        1. re: rasputina

                                          I won't buy cans of it because it's lined with BPA plastic. I buy sauce and other tomato products in glass containers. Many sauces are made with tomatoes, not puree, though I agree a shocking number are as you describe.

                                          1. re: rasputina

                                            Purée is cooked, opposed to juice. Cooking causes the breakdown of the enzyme that gives tomatoes their fresh tomato-y flavor.

                                            1. re: NonnieMuss

                                              Isn't everything packed in glass or cans that's shelf-stable essentially cooked in its container?

                                              1. re: NonnieMuss

                                                If it's canned it's essentially cooked anyway. I thought maybe you preferred the juice to puree due to it having a higher water content or something?

                                                1. re: rasputina

                                                  This is from the Cook's Illustrated canned tomato taste test:

                                                  "Here is where the flavor is most affected. Typically, you'll have a better-tasting tomato if it's processed at a lower temperature. Lower temperatures preserve an enzyme called lipoxygenase, which is vital to the formulation of the volatiles that contain tomato flavor. So why the high temperatures? For texture. Heating tomatoes over 185 degrees, a process called "hot break," deactivates enzymes that would break down the pectin binding the cells together in the tomatoes. Though heat will give you a thicker product that won't separate, you'll lose tomato taste.
                                                  In the next step of processing, the cans are topped with tomato puree or juice, according to manufacturer preference. Puree must be cooked for a long time to break down the tomatoes, and therefore imparts a more cooked—rather than fresh—taste to the final product. Indeed, the lower-ranking crushed tomatoes in our lineup generally featured tomato puree as the first ingredient on the label, while the top four all started their ingredient lists with tomatoes. What's more, manufacturers often disguise less-than-perfect tomatoes with puree, which imparts a deeper red color to the contents of the can. The lesson? A fresh-tasting can of crushed tomatoes won't list puree first on the ingredient list."

                                                  1. re: NonnieMuss

                                                    Puree doesn't "have" to be cooked for a long time to break down the tomatoes. They can be broken down mechanically like in a food mill, food processor or blender.

                                                    Of course this begs the question of how do they define " a long time". I have no idea of the method of commercial production of puree, but I don't know anyone that makes it at home that cooks it for " a long time".

                                                    1. re: rasputina

                                                      It's just a personal preference. I don't buy organic tomatoes. I'm not trying to debate, just answering the question.

                                                      1. re: NonnieMuss

                                                        Oh I'm not trying to debate either. Hopefully it didn't come off that way.

                                          2. Interesting reading responses I realized that I usually pay attention to the components but rarely look at the stats.

                                            looking at the peanut butter example earlier

                                            Jiff "reduced fat" had 190 calories/100 from fat where the Pantry had 200/150 but the Jiff then has 4g of sugars in place of Pantry' 1g

                                            meaning for a total calorie cut of 5% and a 1/3 reduction in fat calories they increase the sugar 4x

                                            I would also contend that the natural fat in peanuts not actually un-healthful - the whole product is a ruse - exactly the type of product I hate.

                                            1. Type 2 diabetic controlling with no meds, so carbs first, I keep them between 30-70 high fiber grams per day, generally. The more protein and non adulterated fats, the better for me.

                                              1. I try not to buy food whose ingredients are written in all caps because I don't like my food to shout at me.

                                                Other than that I don't like to buy things when I can't pronounce the ingredients.

                                                1. I have been compulsively reading ingredients since i became vegetarian more than 20yrs ago.

                                                  I purchase fewer and fewer foods with labels, those i do purchase i look for a short ingredient list of whole foods. My favorite snack right now is dry roasted edamame. Ingredients: soybeans, salt.
                                                  I diligently avoid any HFCS, soy protein isolate, hydrogenated fats, sugar alchohols, and ingredients made in a science lab.
                                                  I want to read, pronounce, and recognize all the ingredients in my food.

                                                    1. re: ipsedixit

                                                      "spelling and grammatical errors."

                                                      In how many different languages?

                                                    2. After having to be overly obsessive about label reading when I was on the gluten-free diet, a diet I failed miserably three times, I came up with a new approach:

                                                      Do the ingredients for the most part sound yummy?

                                                      If I can answer yes, I'll buy it. Shopping became a much more fulfilling experience from then on.

                                                      1 Reply
                                                      1. I avoid items that contain corn syrup, and look at the sodium content.

                                                        I'm with you on no longer buying salad dressing (just as easy to make my own with oil and vinegar and whatever herbs or spices I fancy at the moment), although I buy mayonnaise (although I will make it for special occasions) or bread crumbs (I'm in the SF Bay Area and have access to a lot of good French/Italian style loaves. Since it's so dry, they go stale before we can finish them, and then they're easy to convert into croutons or crumbs). I used to get frustrated because every time I found a commercial salad dressing I liked it got discontinued.

                                                        Now, if I'm a dinner guest and someone serves me a salad with bottled dressing or meat slathered in a sticky sweet commercial sauce I just say "Thank you".

                                                        1. nothing because i've struggled with an eating disorder in my past and reading labels just fuels the obsession for me. i do try to avoid palm oil and buy local though for conservation reasons

                                                          1. I am an avowed label reader. Simply stated, I seek knowledge. I want to know that my hot sauce has chiles as the primary ingredient, that my San Marzano tomatoes are DOP, whether the flour is bleached or unbleached, where my cheese was made, if the butter is cultured*, about unnecessary ingredients in a curry mix. You get the gist.

                                                            I can't say I constantly or completely avoid any ingredients, but I'll buy the mayo without any sweetener before the one with sugar, and the one with sugar before the one with corn syrup. (I do stay away from HFCS generally, but mostly just because it seems like some kind of weird corporate monstrosity thrust upon the public with a wink, a nod, and a spirit of "whaada they gonna say about it anyway?" connivance.) It's not like I buy much stuff that's fabricated - more of a "perimeter shopper", as they say.

                                                            Truth is I don't really give a rat's ass about serving sizes, percentage of RDA, sodium, carbs, or calories, but I do want to know that my peanuts were "packaged and/or processed in a facility that packages and processes peanuts". I'd hate to consider the alternatives.

                                                            *Honestly, who wants butter that was raised in a barn?

                                                            1. Similar to your follow-up post, I tend to look at the ingeredients more than the stats. I will glance at the numbers for sodium and sugars, but pretty much consider it a waste of my time. Any deeper analysis would really just be an empty gesture on my part....not to mention the fact that putting on and taking off my glasses just to read the damn thing tends to give me a headache.
                                                              The truth is, if I didn't have to worry about the unit price so much, I'd probably worry about what's on the label more.

                                                              1. I look for sodium, sugar and carb levels. On the ingredient side, chemicals that I can't pronounce.

                                                                1. I will compare grams of fat, look at the types of fat and sweetener. I won't buy cereals with lots of grams of sugar. The goal is 3-4 g but I will justify 6 if I have a craving for something.

                                                                  I won't by canned tomato products that also contain peppers.

                                                                  1. To the greatest extent possible, I try to avoid foods that require labels. Much of what I buy is produce or meat.

                                                                    Otherwise, I look at fiber, carbs, sugar, and generally at the number of ingredients present. The fewer the better. However, I do buy prepared sauces, e.g. chili black bean sauce with garlic. I look for sugar as an added ingredient but don't really sweat it too much as I tend to use those in very limited quantities per dish.

                                                                    1. I have been turning into a compulsive label reader too (as an attempt to improve on the multiple health conditions my family is dealing with), and I can often be seen at the aisles frantically flipping the packaging of the food products on all sides, trying to scan and locate the needed information in record speed.

                                                                      I found that, along with this habit, it made it so much harder to make any purchases at the store for processed foods. I am now so much more driven to make food from scratch, even condiments and snacks, even though I do not really have all the time for it. Once in a while I splurge on the junk foods I crave, like chips and cookies, in moderation, knowing they have a lot of the ingredients I am trying to avoid.

                                                                      My top list of foodstuffs to avoid:
                                                                      - Sugar/HFCS/artificial sweeteners. The less the better, and I would choose dessert products with a lower sugar content, and try to avoid bread and crackers that are sweetened (unless they are really meant to be sweet, like brioche and hot cross buns).
                                                                      - MSG
                                                                      - Any product with canola/soy/corn oil. The rare time I live with these is usually when I splurge on my favourite chips. I miss chips fried in peanut oil (or animal fat) but they are barely made anymore, except at home.

                                                                      Unfortunately, because of this preference, I end up having to make condiments such as mayo and pesto. I love them except they do not last well, and sometimes I wonder if I will still be better off if I start adding preservatives into my own condiments.

                                                                      1 Reply
                                                                      1. re: vil

                                                                        Pesto freezes really well, if that helps. :-)