A Case For Reading Food Labels

This is a guest blog post by Andrea Simon.

I’m a compulsive food label reader. I’m that girl you see standing in the aisle at Trader Joe’s with a jar of applesauce in each hand, analyzing one’s nutrition facts against the other. Sometimes I get stares—it doesn’t bother me. This is a habit I started when I first began losing weight, at the time, only concerned about the amount of calories in an item. Now, I look for other factors too like which product has more fiber, less total fat, more monounsaturated fat, higher vitamin content, etc., but I’m not gonna lie…the calories are still important! I have a rule that I’ve pretty much lived by for the past year: if the calories are too high, it doesn’t make it in the cart—it’s as simple as that. This way I make sure I don’t keep foods in my house that could be potential stumbling blocks for me. You wouldn’t believe the world of difference this simple concept can make. Because of my compulsive food label reading, I also notice right away when a sneaky food manufacturer tries to pull a fast one on me. Case in point:


Y’all know I love Special K, right? Especially the Blueberry kind…MMmmm…Well, ever since I’ve been eating Blueberry Special K it has always contained 100 calories per serving. (SN: A  serving of Special K is 3/4 of a cup, which really isn’t a whole lot when you think about the average size of a bowl of cereal<—Another prime example why you should read your labels!) Recently, however, I picked up a box and noticed that the label now says 110 calories per serving.


I know it’s a measly 10 calories that I could probably burn off simply by typing this post, but I gotta be honest, I was a little ticked. Not so much because of the increase, but more so because if I hadn’t been as aware of the original nutrition facts as I was, I never would’ve noticed the difference…and I’m guessing the average consumer probably hasn’t. Plus, I’d always found it odd that Blueberry Special K had less calories than all of the other flavors (even though it tastes the best) and I couldn’t help but wonder if they were correcting a mistake they’d made all along. Hmm…food for thought.

Anyhoo, as you can see above, the majority of the changes made are positive like lower sodium and higher potassium and fiber, but on the contrary, the sugar content has increased. I will applaud Special K for one thing though; they put their information on the front of the box as well to make the consumer a little more aware, something I think is especially important for them since they specifically target dieters with their products.


Unfortunately, however, not every company is so forthcoming. Here’s another example:

I went to the store to purchase a can of diced tomatoes recently. I picked up two seemingly identical cans, with the only difference being one happens to be a larger can than the other.


But when I flipped them over, I noticed several differences in the nutrition facts.


Not only was one slightly higher in calories, but I noticed several vitamins had decreased, and as you can see Thiamine and Riboflavin are gone altogether on the larger can. Out of sheer confusion and curiosity (and because I think I’m just waaayyy too passionate about this stuff sometimes) I decided to purchase both cans and give the 1-800 number on the back a call to see what was up with the difference. I gotta be honest, the customer service rep I spoke with didn’t seem all that knowledgeable. I’m guessing she doesn’t get calls like this often. I could literally hear her shuffling papers, I assume for scripts, and she just kept averting my attention back to the fact that the company had been making efforts to lower sodium and make their product healthier, so the changes must be a result of this. She also looked up the labels and informed me that the smaller can was an older can and the larger reflects their reformulated tomatoes. Ok, fair enough. I applaud Con Agra for this change; lower sodium is always a good thing, but I’m definitely getting the impression from both of these experiences that as companies toot their horns for lowering sodium or other “frowned upon” contents, they’re leaving out the fact that they’re sacrificing some of the benefits as a result. I’m no food scientist, but if you’re eliminating one bad ingredient only to increase another to balance the taste of removing the first ingredient, is that really making your product healthier? Just sayin’…

I also feel pretty comfortable in saying that the majority of consumers don’t read their labels and just take what’s being advertised at face value. I’ve actually witnessed friends or coworkers, and even in the past I too have been scammed by products with big ads plastered across the front touting “Only 100 Calories!” then a tiny little “per serving” written underneath. Then when actually reviewing the serving size you see that one serving is equivalent to exactly one crumb of a cookie or cracker. Ok, I’m exaggerating—but you get the point I’m trying to make. Read your food labels. Not only will it help you make better choices by being aware of what you’re consuming AND the amount, but many food companies will only highlight the most positive information to present things in the best light, so it’s up to us consumers to stay informed for ourselves.

Happy label reading!

Andrea Simon is a former junk food junkie, turned health fanatic, who can effortlessly recite the nutrition facts of almost any food (thanks to her obsession with label reading and Google!). She is the author of Thin Thighs & Sweet Potato Fries, a blog about food, fitness, and healthy living in the South.

Do you spend time reading food labels at the grocery store?

Has simply reading the label ever saved you from totally derailing your healthy eating plan?

Have you ever had a similar situation where you noticed two identical products with differing nutrition facts?

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  • http://twitter.com/avalonmel Melissa Hogan

    If you look at the Special K boxes, though both serving sizes say 3/4 cup, one says 27g while the other one says 30g, which could explain the higher calories and sugar numbers for that one. Wondering why a 3/4 cup serving of their product suddenly got 3g heavier though.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_HPXQJFNT4QFCZYNX3TFFLRYXNU Stacy

    I’m with you Andrea, I stand in the aisles and read labels. Did you notice on the Special K that the weight changed in the 3/4 cup serving size? From 27g to 30g? Guess those extra 10 calories weigh 3g. :)

    • http://twitter.com/ThinNSweet Andrea

      Stacy, I did notice that and like Melissa mentioned below, it definitely still made me raise an eyebrow as to why their 3/4 c serving suddenly changed in grams! :)

      • http://www.palateworks.com Carol

        Hi Andrea… Sometimes, there’s a really simple reason why the numbers change or are a little different in seemingly similar products. Not having the Special K ingredients in front of me, it sounds like the new formula is a little more dense (not as much crisped white rice (mostly air), but maybe more whole wheat or other higher fiber grain added, which is an improvement). This will make the same 3/4 cup a little heavier and definitely have more calories. There also could have been, as mentioned above, a re-analysis of the samples, resulting in revised data. And it is not uncommon for nutrition data to be slightly off or even way off (usually human error, just as with writing/editing). Keep in mind that a 10% difference is insignificant in the scheme of food labeling, since foods are living, natural things that do not all grow with the same exact nutrient composition (rice from one farm can be different from another, etc.) and all you can expect is an average. Not to mention that 10 calories is a tiny percentage of your daily diet. As for the canned tomatoes no longer showing B vitamins, well, B vitamins aren’t required to be shown — they are one of the many “voluntary” nutrients on the Nutrition Facts. It only makes sense to show voluntary nutrients that are at least 10% DV, or the whole can would be plastered with info about insignificant nutrients.

      • Carol

        I forgot to mention that calories are rounded to the nearest 10 for any food with 50 calories or more, so the original may have “really” been (not that in reality you can get this kind of precision with food) 104 cal. (rounded to 100) and the revised one tested at 106 (rounded to 110). Meaning, it’s possible there is really only a 1 or 2 calorie difference. See FDA rounding guidelines for food industry here: http://www.fda.gov/Food/GuidanceComplianceRegulatoryInformation/GuidanceDocuments/FoodLabelingNutrition/FoodLabelingGuide/ucm064932.htm

        • http://twitter.com/ThinNSweet Andrea

          Carol, thanks for sharing this information!

  • http://aconsciousomnivore.blogspot.com Justin McKeel

    Andrea,

    You might be interested to find out what those blueberries in your Special K really are –

    http://www.specialk.com/cereals/blueberry/

    “BLUEBERRY FLAVORED BITS [SUGAR, CORN SYRUP, CORN CEREAL, SOYBEAN OIL, MODIFIED CORN STARCH, NATURAL AND ARTIFICIAL FLAVORS, SALT, RED #40, BLUE #2, GREEN #3, BLUE #1, CELLULOSE GUM]”

    As seen on “The Blueberry Deception” at http://www.foodinvestigations.com/

    Good eye on those labels though. I worked at a grocery store for a while and ran into stuff like this pretty frequently.

    • http://landanimal.wordpress.com/ Joanna

      Good point. That is the real case for reading food labels here!

    • http://www.spoonfedblog.net Christina @ Spoonfed

      “You might be interested to find out what those blueberries in your Special K really are…. BLUEBERRY FLAVORED BITS [SUGAR, CORN SYRUP, CORN CEREAL, SOYBEAN OIL, MODIFIED CORN STARCH, NATURAL AND ARTIFICIAL FLAVORS, SALT, RED #40, BLUE #2, GREEN #3, BLUE #1, CELLULOSE GUM].”

      Yup. That’s why I’m all about reading *ingredients* instead of labels: http://spoonfedblog.net/2011/01/29/stop-reading-labels-and-start-reading-ingredients/

    • http://twitter.com/ThinNSweet Andrea

      Justin-That is a very good point and thanks for sharing! I have actually re-evaluated my consumption of Special K ever since reading a post Fooducate featured a few weeks ago about the ingredients it contains. Yet another prime example why label reading is important! :)

  • Diane

    You should know that food companies must regularly analyze the nutrition info of their foods. The nutrition info may vary a bit depending on processing changes, seasonal variations in friut and vegetable crops, or other details. Example: a friend of mine who works for a food company told me once that the nutrition info for one kind of cookie was off because some chopped nuts were clumping up in the machines. So if they happened to test a cookie with clumps of nuts instead of a sprinkling of nuts, the NI would vary a bit from the norm. So it may be that the cereal manufacturing process changed a bit, letting more of the blueberry clusters in each box, upping the calories. My guess is that tomatoes have a similar story – summer vs. winter tomatoes may contain varying nutrients.

    • http://twitter.com/ThinNSweet Andrea

      Diane, this is good information. Thank you!!

  • mari

    I had a similar situation last night (and am also a label reader). It’s that of not disbelief of the label. It was a packaged good, with no more ingredients on the label than I would have put in it. Not refrigerated. So, I’m wondering, since we aren’t informed of added BPAs to the can, plastic; what else aren’t we informed of? The Hunt’s ingredient list didn’t change, so how are they “reformulated” enough to change the Thiamine and Riboflavin, but no ingredients?

    @Andrea: Pomi Tomatoes only claim to have one ingredient in their diced tomatoes. Tomatoes. They’re pretty amazing. And no BPAs.

    • http://twitter.com/ThinNSweet Andrea

      Mari, Thanks for this tip! I will definitely look for these tomatoes!

  • http://www.cspiscam.com/background.cfm OriginalBuddha

    OMG!!1! 5 whole calories? And you felt the need to call about that? That’s some serious passive aggressive behavior.

  • Mig

    Buddha, you missed the whole point. And she called to gather info to understand why there was a change. That’s not passive aggressive AT ALL. It’s called educating yourself.

  • http://twitter.com/MtvdNutrition Motivated Nutrition

    Food labels and the FDA requirements are one of my biggest frustrations. Andrea, have you read Marion Nestle’s “What to Eat”? If not, you have to pick it up!

  • jenna

    a former junk food junkie who eats special K blueberry cereal with fake blueberries. If she might read the labels and then research exactly what the ingredients are in her processed food cereal maybe she would see the irony in her obsession.

    • http://twitter.com/ThinNSweet Andrea

      Jenna, you make a very valid point and you should know that I am very aware of the ingredients that Special K contains. As I mentioned, what I look for in labels has changed over time and continues to evolve as I educate myself about nutrition more and more. The point of this post, however, is not to advocate eating Special K or any food for that matter. It is to point out that food label reading is important and the point you raise only further proves why. :)

      • http://www.spoonfedblog.net Christina @ Spoonfed

        But there’s a big difference between reading labels and reading *ingredients.* Labels and “nutrition facts” panels exist for two reasons: 1) because food lobbies have bought and paid for the USDA food pyramid; and 2) because throwing out numbers and health claims tricks people into buying food that isn’t really food.

        Best advice is still to ignore the labels and read the ingredients. And if you see something you don’t recognize as food, don’t buy it.

        • http://www.fooducate.com/blog Fooducate

          The ingredient list and nutrition facts panel are like a yin and a yang, a batman and robin, … (you get the idea).
          Reading one without the other just isn’t it.
          While the ingredients give an indication of how processed or not a product is, the nutrition facts point out calories, sodium, saturated fats, and carbs – details that are very important for people trying to lose weight, lower blood pressure, etc…

          • http://www.spoonfedblog.net Christina @ Spoonfed

            That’s certainly true… to a point. Unfortunately most people fixate on the numbers instead of the words in the ingredients. So I think it’s important to change that default mindset. Check the numbers you feel are important, OK, but if we choose foods with recognizable ingredients, most of the “nutrition facts” take care of themselves.

  • Nurture Nutrition

    I think focusing on calories and weight loss is what leading to almost all Americans having some sort of disordered eating behavior. Health should be our focus!!! The BPA lining the can of those tomatoes and the fact that they aren’t organic (tomatoes eat up those pesticides!) is a much bigger deal than the 5 calories.
    The nice thing about eating whole foods is that there are no labels :) Apples, oranges, salmon, whole grains, beans, etc have no labels to have to decipher. Just real food and real nutrition!

    • Jason

      Yes, and tomatoes are more acidic than other foods. This causes even more BPA to leach into the food.

      • Nurture Nutrition

        Exactly! Eden Organics does have tomatoes in a can without BPA, but they are the only ones I know of.

        • http://www.spoonfedblog.net Christina @ Spoonfed

          Actually, that’s not true. Eden’s beans are in BPA-free cans, but its tomato products are not. Eden does offer tomato products in glass jars, but those aren’t as widely available. (Those jar lids do contain BPA, but apparently it’s encapsulated.) More details here: http://www.edenfoods.com/faqs/view.php?categories_id=6

          We buy organic tomatoes in bulk every summer, then roast and freeze them. It’s actually really easy (and of course really tasty).

          Spoonfed: Raising kids to think about the food they eat

        • Anonymous

          According to one report (supposedly based on testing) the cans used by Muir Glen have less BPA.

    • Anonymous
      • Nurture Nutrition

        I’ve found a great supplier at my local farmer’s market (I live in Seattle) that tests their fish for heavy metal content! I know most people don’t have access to that though. I was vegetarian and then vegan for many years and adding salmon back into my diet has been so wonderful for my mental and physical health!

  • Judy

    i’m with you nurture nutrition! whole food doesn’t have labels. there are very few things that we NEED to buy that are processed or packaged. I feel standing around and reading labels and buying these processed products only supports an industry i am highly opposed to. imagine how much time you would save shopping at your local farmers market placing organic single ingredient products in your basket! now that’s convenience food!

    • http://www.spoonfedblog.net Christina @ Spoonfed

      Yes, real food, sans labels, is the obvious best choice. And power to those who never buy a package of anything. But when you do buy packaged products, just skip the labels and read the ingredients, and you’ll be good to go.

  • http://www.facebook.com/BetsyMowry Betsy Mowry

    I’ve noticed calorie differences in different types of Cheerios. For example, the banana will have something like 20 more calories than chocolate…or the serving sizes will different – 3/4 cup vs. 1 cup. The inconsistency drives me crazy. I’m happy to have found low fat half and half. The no fat tastes bad and has higher calories, the regular is too high calories, so low fat is a great alternative – when I can find it.

    I too count calories, and am not always a strict healthy eater. I like my occasional junk food. So don’t feel bad re: other comments. I love my co-op, but also like low cal treats. You’ve gotta live how you choose.

  • Lea Goin

    I believe the special k cereals all have hfcs as one of their first ingredients. Calorie content doesn’t matter much when you’re eating poison. Though I am all for reading nutrition labels, this should also include ingredients.

  • http://www.madamethejourneyblog.com Paula

    This is a great post, Andrea! The reality is, is that everyone is not a puritan when it comes to dietary choices. Even as a primarily clean-eater, I’m not perfect. And buying something that didn’t come directly from a farmers’ market shouldn’t discount the right of consumers, to be truthfully informed about their purchases. I don’t trust the food industry as far as I could throw them, but I see nothing wrong with having some expectations of transparency.

  • JD

    I’m an avid label reader, too, and I educate others why and how to do the same. Great post!!

  • Nancy – The Frugal dietitian

    I think an amazing system coming to many grocery stores now is the NuVal system
    http://www.nuval.com/
    It takes a lot of the guess work out for the consumer!! Designed with the help of Registered Dietitians.

  • kimberly

    i have an at@t phone.Can you get that app on that phone.

  • Anonymous

    Yes, been reading labels/ingredient & nutrient lists for years-or as long as I can remember the information being required. One point: I believe that FDA regs allow mention of a given ingredient to be omitted if it’s (allegedly) present in quantities below a set amount. So there could be HCFS in that food, just not enough that it has to be listed as an ingredient, ditto for transfats. My guess is that food manufacturers lobby for those limits to be raised to decrease costs.

    I buy in bulk (I’m fortunate to have had good food co-ops wherever I’ve lived in the past 20 years) but it’s important to read ingredient lists on the bulk containers too. Especially if you’re buying nuts, any kind of snack food (chips, granolas, etc.) salsas, mustards, (or processed foods), something can have “certified organic ingredients” and still have more sugars and fats (granolas, for example) then you may want to eat–or maybe after reading the ingredient/nutrient/calorie list, you might want to be careful to eat less of it.

    Cooking from scratch helps with control of ingredients, as does possession of a freezer, so you can cook once a week or every other week & then freeze in meal-sized portions for those days when you’re too busy to cook for yourself and/or your family.

    Good article.

    • http://www.palateworks.com Carol

      Hi… HFCS must always be listed on the ingredients list, regardless of amount, because it has a “technical or functional effect” mainly, sweetening. And if, as it generally is, used for sweetening, then it will be present in significant enough quantities to actually sweeten, and therefore will provide calories. All ingredients that provide nutrients (whether calories, sodium, fiber, etc.) must be listed in the ingredients. There are very few instances where something does not need to be listed, and those ingredients would definitely not provide calories. One example is sulfiting agents. They can only be left off the ingredients if there is no technical role/effect in the food (so when sulfites are used as preservatives they CAN NOT be left off the list) and when less than “10 parts per million… in the finished food” per FDA. This is a verrrry small amount. The purpose of the rule is to prevent every incidental/minor “ingredient” that flies in the window or comes from nature from having to be put on the ingredients list.

      • Anonymous

        but see http://www.foodlabels.com/transfat.htm apparently it depends, at least for transfat.

        • http://www.palateworks.com Carol

          Yes, all fat content (saturated, total, trans, etc.) under 1/2 gram per serving will round down to 0 g. But that does not allow the fat/ingredient to be omitted from the ingredients list. The source of the fat still needs to show on the ingredients list (e.g., partially-hydrogenated fat in the case of trans fat). Also, all nutrients must be shown according to FDA rounding rules. As I mention in another reply to this post, calories are rounded to the nearest 10 calories when there are more than 50 calories in the serving. For foods with 50 or fewer calories, calories are rounded to the nearest 5. Less than 5 calories is rounded to 0, because it is a) considered insignificant, and b) the precision in measuring this data is plus or minus 5 calories. Likewise, when you see a Nutrition Facts label that shows calories (or sodium, carbs or protein) with a decimal point (e.g., 55.7 calories), you can be sure that the analysis was not done by a professional.

  • Jennifer

    Hi Andrea – Excellent blog! I’m not positive, but a possible reason for the increase in calories could be attributed to the reduction in the sodium levels. Salt contributes to the per serving weight. When salt is metabolized, it doesn’t contribute any caloric value. So when you remove salt from the per serving weight of the products, you’re replacing that percentage of weight with carbohydrates/fats/protein. Since these nutrients contribute calories, you are taking something that doesn’t factor in to your calorie count and replacing it with something that does, so it would make sense that the calories would increase.

    • http://twitter.com/ThinNSweet Andrea

      Thanks so much, Jennifer! This makes a lot of sense! :)

      • http://www.palateworks.com Carol

        Hi Andrea and Jennifer… salt is used in very small amounts compared to carbs, protein, etc. In fact, it is measured in milligrams rather than grams, so any reduction in sodium would be very small on a weight basis and if that number of milligrams of sodium is replaced with carbs/protein/etc. it would be too insignificant to make a difference in calories. See my replies from a couple days ago regarding the revised calorie data for the newer Special K product. PS: I have been doing nutrition analysis/labeling for 15+ years.

  • Tuxbaby

    And even beyond label reading- be aware of what you are truly getting. Special K gets a special ICKY spot on my list for advertising itself as healthy food for dieters. The ONLY thing that might help a dieter is that it is low in calories (IF you eat only the serving size listed). Otherwise, it’s only an over-processed carb that turns into sugar in your bloodstream, which then spikes insulin levels and then gets stored as fat. For a healthy carb- skip the starchy, over-processed ‘foods’ and opt for true whole grains, or just stick to fruits/vegetables for your carbohydrate source. “Made with whole grains” isn’t the same as actual WHOLE grains. Dump out any boxed cereal- do you see whole grains? No? Then it’s over-processed and it doesn’t matter if it’s made with whole grains or not- it’s still going to turn into pure sugar quickly once eaten, and spike your blood sugar. Eating a true whole grain takes more time to digest/absorb… so it won’t spike your insulin levels. You can actually use up the sugar as it goes if you’re active. Special K isn’t healthy food. It’s over-processed junk just like the pop tarts.

  • http://troubleensued.com Tracey

    Love, love, love your post. And here I thought I was the only person reading labels in the grocery store. I have to admit, I never noticed the disparity between sizes like you did…and now I will be on the look out. This is the best heads-up I’ve read in a long time.