If you want to be sure you're eating the healthiest way possible, then it's crucial to learn how to read food labels. Just glancing at one can often feel like you're trying to decipher a secret coded language, but we promise it's not that hard once you get the hang of it! And it's so worth it, because when you know what to look for, you can easily limit the amount of sugar, sodium and processed food in your diet, as well as eliminate animal ingredients. You can also compare products, which will aid in your journey to cleaner eating. The first rule of thumb with any item is to flip it to the back. There you'll discover all the dietary information you need to know, captured in two important sections.

1. Nutrition Facts Label

Every packaged food in the grocery store is required to have a Nutrition Facts label which details an item's nutritional value (or lack thereof). At the top of the label are the Calories. Below the Calories are sugar, sodium and cholesterol content -- the nutrients you should limit. They're followed by the vitamins you should probably be taking in more of, like fiber, vitamins A and C, and calcium. At the bottom are the Footnotes, a handy guide to how much of the questionable stuff (fat, sodium, cholesterol) the FDA recommends for a person's daily intake. These are basic numbers that are the same on all nutrition labels. Compare them to an individual product's nutrient content to see if it as healthy as it claims.

2. Ingredients

Ingredients are listed in order of their percentage contained in the product. So if water is listed first, then it is the main ingredient. As a general rule, if a name sounds like a chemical, then it was probably processed in a lab. Keep in mind that many ingredients go by multiple names. (For example, sugar might also be noted as corn syrup, dextrose, or fructose.) For vegan products, labels are usually marked "Certified Vegan" or "100% Organic Vegan". By law, any product with the "Vegan" stamp must be completely free of any ingredient of animal origin, including meat, fish, dairy, eggs, honey, and gelatin. Take, for instance, marshmallows. They might not seem like an animal product, but look closely at the ingredients . Most brands contain gelatin, a food derived from fish or pig skin parts. A safe brand to buy is Dandies, which instead uses soy protein and tapioca starch. If you're worried about taking in an animal product, look at PETA's guide to animal ingredients which can help you figure out if what you're eating is actually vegan.

When it comes to gluten-free, a product must contain less than 20 ppm (parts per million) of the grain-based protein, which is naturally found in wheat, rye, and barley. However, "gluten-free" doesn't necessarily mean "vegan" or even "organic", so be sure to choose foods that have all of these assertions printed on the label.

In order to be labeled "Organic" by the USDA, there are strict guidelines that must be adhered to. But even if a product does not feature the official seal, that does not mean it's not organic. You just need to look at the ingredients and see for yourself!



American Heart Association: About Sodium 

FDA: How to Understand and Use the Nutrition Facts Label

American Heart Association: Understanding Ingredients on Food Labels

Well Vegan: Reading Food Labels to Avoid Animal Products