8 Trick-Free Ways To Know What You're Eating

If you’re anything like me, you get sucked into “listicles.” I’m usually only halfway through my morning emails before I click on The 15 Best Beaches, and pretty soon I’m working my way through 15 Ridiculously Cute Baby Sloths. Lists can be funny, cute, or informative, but some try to scare us into thinking or feeling a certain way. I’ve seen scare tactics used most often in lists about food.

Being somewhat passionate about food myself, I read any food list that comes my way – and I’ve noticed that “scary” food lists usually share very little and very selective information out of context. So I decided to make a list myself, to remind us of very un-scary aspects of our food system. Here are 8 trick-free ways to know what you’re eating.

1. Ingredients – Each ingredient in a food is listed on the label by weight, so we know both the ingredients we’re consuming and their relative amounts. We might not recognize all the ingredients, but that’s because the FDA requires that the label feature their scientific names. Can’t pronounce "cyanocobalamin"? Me either. But cyanocobalamin is really just vitamin B12. Ascorbic acid? You might know it as Vitamin C. You can learn more about common food ingredients (and why they’re used) in this quick and easy guide.

2. Allergy information – Required by law, foods that have a potential allergen must say so in plain language. Companies either include the allergen in the ingredients list in parentheses, or name it under “contains.”

3. Nutrition information –The Nutrition Facts Panel on food labels lists the amount of major nutrients, as well as their “% Daily Value,” or “% DV.” The actual amounts are especially helpful for people with health conditions who track their nutrient intake, while the % DV is useful for those of us who want to know how our foods’ nutrients compare to what’s recommended.

4. Serving size –The Nutrition Facts Panel includes the “serving size.” The nutrition information on the panel is for one serving size, so if we eat a bigger or smaller portion, we should adjust the nutrition information accordingly. Remember, the serving size is not the recommended amount – it’s just the reference amount for the nutrition information. The great thing for consumers is that serving sizes are standardized across product categories. No matter where you buy your milk, a serving is 1 cup. This makes it easy to compare the nutrition information between foods.

5. Dates to help ensure freshness – Labels include dates and timelines to tell us how long our food is expected to stay fresh (better than the sniff test!)  Learn more on "Sell By v. Best By" dates from USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service

6. Name and contact information of the producer or manufacturer – Have a question, comment, or concern? Each food label tells us the name of the producer or manufacturer, as well as their contact information so that we can reach the company with any feedback or to get more information.

7. FDA-regulated claims about health and nutrition – There are three kinds of claims that the FDA allows on food packages. “Health claims” descibe foods that impact disease risk. “Nutrient content claims” refer to how much of a nutrient is in the food, usually with words like high, low, reduced, and lite. “Structure/Function claims” are what a nutrient or ingredient can do for your body, such as “calcium builds strong bones.” All of these claims are closely regulated, so you can use them confidently to make food decisions.

8. The “grade” of products like meat, poultry, and eggs – While meat and poultry must be inspected by the USDA, some producers request that their products also be graded for quality, according to uniform USDA standards. Beef, for example, will be graded as “USDA prime,” “USDA choice,” or “USDA select,” based on tenderness, juiciness, and flavor. If you’re buying shell eggs, they’ve been graded and labeled. Check out the USDA FSIS guide for information on meat grading and this handy infographic from the USDA for more information.

On top of all this great info, food labels are constantly updated and revised to provide the most desired and important information. Even more information is often available on company or product websites.

So the next time you munch your favorite snack, take a look at the label and discover just how much information is there. And in the meantime, check out these 20 Ridiculously Cute Surfing Dogs that you Need to Look at Now.

Katherine Olender is an MPH MS candidate and the 2014 IFIC Foundation Sylvia Rowe Fellow.