Ask the Health Coach: How Do You Read a Food Label?

Health coach Maura Manzo offer six easy-to-remember tips for making sense of food labels and ingredient lists.

Dear Maura,
A simple question for you today: How do you parse out food labels and identify weird ingredients when shopping? Please share your insights.

~ A Concerned Consumer


Hey there CC,

Funny you ask this question because my family and I had a nice roundtable about this on Sunday night after watching the 60 Minutes special “Is Sugar Toxic?” The sad fact is that a lot of consumers, just like yourself, don’t know how to read a food label. The FDA, USDA and FTC like it that way (my opinion, of course) because if most of us knew exactly what we were eating, we’d probably choose otherwise.

The good news is that with a little education, everyone can make smarter choices. So, here’s my contribution:

1. What’s on the front of the label means diddly-squat. There are very loose regulations about the claims made on the front of packaging. Unfortunately, things like “heart-healthy,” “all-natural” and “whole grain” often mean very little and boil down to catchy marketing. So turn the label over and read the ingredients list.

2. Once reading the ingredients list, know this: ingredients are listed by which are present the most to least.

3. As far as identifying questionable food labels, it’s a pretty general consensus that if you can’t pronounce a word listed or don’t know what it is, you shouldn’t eat it. (Example: The disodium phosphate found in Doritos is also used in various industrial cleaning products and as a water softening agent. Tasty!)

4. Things can get really tricky when it comes to sugar. But here’s the most important thing to know: Any ingredient ending with “-ose” (fructose, sucrose, lactose) means that sugar has been ADDED to the product. Yes, added.

5. There are usually two ingredients I avoid at any cost: partially hydrogenated oil (trans fat) and high fructose corn syrup (HFCS). Both are toxic. Please know that even if a food label says there is zero grams of trans fat in the product, if it is in the ingredients list, then it’s a lie. Fact: For a label to claim a food has zero trans fat grams, it simply needs to have half a gram or less. So if you’re having a few servings of this and that throughout the course of your day, you’re eating way more trans fats than you think.

6. My last recommendation is pretty simple: the less ingredients, the better.

I know that it can be challenging in today’s busy world, but try to find foods that are as close to their natural state as possible. The best choices are those that don’t have a food label: fresh fruits and veggies. Or, of course, foods that you are cooking yourself with basic, all natural ingredients. Then you don’t have to worry about weird ingredients you don’t recognize and, you know, whether or not you’re feeding the kids cleaning products at snack time.

Happy hunting,

Have a question for Maura? Email us, and your question could be answered in a future column! Find more of Maura’s advice here.


Maura Manzo is a yoga teacher and health coach specializing in integrating diet, health and wellness. She supports others in becoming their best possible selves. Maura is available for private instruction and coaching, as well as on-site corporate classes and speaking engagements. She is co-creator of the Beyond Asana 200-Hour Yoga Teacher Training and the Art of Letting Go: Maya Tulum Mexican Yoga Vacation. Learn more about her teaching schedule, coaching practice and yoga trainings at