It'll help you determine if a packaged food is healthy in less than 30 seconds.

Carolyn Williams, PhD, RD
Getty / RiverNorthPhotography

Confused about what to look for on food labels? You're not alone. In the past, the common starting places were often calories and total fat. Yet, most consumers now realize that those two values reveal very little about a food's nutrient content and overall health value.

So to get some insight on where to start on food labels, I went to the best sources for nutrition information—registered dietitians. I polled over twenty of my colleagues and asked them what they look at first on a label when grocery shopping. Surprisingly, the responses tended to be one of two things. Keep reading to find out what those are and how to use them to simplify your next shopping trip.

The Ingredient List

The overwhelming response isn't a number, but rather the ingredient list. Bailee Hart, RD shares that she's "looking for a fairly short list of natural, whole-food and recognizable ingredients." She also doesn't waste time if she doesn't like what she sees. "If there's a long list of unrecognizable ingredients, I put it back before looking any further at the label."

I got similar feedback from other dietitians like Jennifer Hunt, RDN, LD who shared that, while it may not be true for every food, "most often the quality of the ingredients trumps the macros and nutrients when I am checking out a product."

Other than steering clear of unrecognizable ingredients, what else are dietitians looking for in that list?

  • The number of ingredients. "The fewer the better," says Diane Norwood, MS, RD, CDE, advice that I also received from many others.
  • The order of ingredients. Manufacturers are required to list ingredients in order of weight going from highest to lowest. This means that where one falls in the list gives insight into what the main ingredients are in a food. Leanne Ray, MS, RDN says looking at where ingredients fall in the list—particularly the nutrient-dense ones like while grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds—"is a great way to get a quick sense of what makes up the bulk of a recipe."
  • Added sugars. If it's a sweetened food, then it's important to identify the added sugar and where it falls in the ingredient list. The closer the added sugars are to the end of the list, the better, since those ingredients are in descending order. Looking for added sugars in foods that aren't usually sweet (like pasta sauce or bread) may be even more important, and can be a good way to decide between two similar products at the store.

Related: Your Guide to Nutrition Labels

The Fiber Content

If the ingredient list wasn't the first thing dietitians said they looked for, then it was fiber. This makes sense, since fiber is a nutrient that most don't get enough of on a daily basis. But this is also because fiber content is often a good indicator of a food's quality.

"Fiber content is a quick and easy way for consumers get a clue to the nutrient density of a food," explains Chef Dietitian Michele Redmond, MS, RDN, FAND. She adds that this is especially true for carbohydrate-based foods. Redmond says that looking at fiber amounts for carb-based foods "can help one to decide which food products offer the complex, slower metabolizing carbohydrates associated with heart health, satiety, a healthy microbiome and other benefits."

Registered Dietitian Melissa Mitri looks at fiber first too, using it to steer her towards higher-fiber choices for health benefits, as well as satiety. She explains, "Fiber is a nutrient most of us don't get enough is, and it plays such a huge role in our health, including our weight and managing cravings."

Related: Try Our 7-Day High-Fiber Meal Plan

What Else Should You Look for on a Nutrition Label?

Checking out the ingredient list and fiber content can take a lot of guesswork when trying to choose healthier items, but where do you go from there? "Priorities for label reading really depend on health concerns," says Bridget Swinney MS, RD. Carbohydrates may be the focus for those with diabetes, while sodium may be more important for those with high blood pressure. Also, a key element on that label to remember is serving size. As Jill Weisenberger, MS, RDN,CDE, author of Prediabetes: A Complete Guide, points out "everything else on the Nutrition Facts panel is based on that."

The takeaway from this is that the ingredient list and fiber content are often good initial indicators of a food's quality. However, there's no right or wrong way to read food labels. Don't be afraid to focus on those elements that address your personal health concerns and goals.

Carolyn Williams, PhD, RD, is author to the new cookbook, Meals That Heal: 100+ Everyday Anti-Inflammatory Recipes in 30 Minutes or Less, and a culinary nutrition expert known for ability to simplify food and nutrition information. She received a 2017 James Beard Journalism award. You can follow her on Instagram @realfoodreallife_rd or on carolynwilliamsrd.com.

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