Nutrition labels are found on every packaged food product at your grocery store. While it is best to follow a diet of whole foods like fruits, nuts, seeds, vegetables and whole grains, there are times when we are in a situation that will require a packaged product - may it be travelling in an airport, celebrating a special occasion, or starving after work and being too tired to cook. For that there's meal prep, but read on anyway.
Step 1: Shop at health food stores as much as possible
There is a Whole Foods in every major city in the country and the wellness trend is making healthy food stores readily accessible. Better yet, going for a smaller chain or indiviual store will often be less pricey and you will find all kinds of amazing products from companies that are too small for Whole Foods to carry. By shopping at a health food store, you immeditely eliminate toxic ingredients like food coloring and chemicals because these store owners monitor the ingredients of the companies they source from.
My favorite health food stores in LA are Lassens, Erewhon, Mother's Market (The OC), Santa Monica Co-Op and Rainbow Acres. In NY, check out Perelandra, LifeThyme, Clover Grocery and Orchard Grocer
Step 2: Read the ingredients
By default, you have already eliminated junk like aspartame (found in Coca Cola), high fructose corn syrup, and other chemical compounds that you can't even pronounce.
Now start looking for things you may be allergic too (wheat, nuts, dairy, etc.). Ingredient lables are printed in the order of the amount of food. So if something is first on the label- like sugar- this product will be primarily sugar. I noticed that green juice companies do this a lot! On the front they list ingredients in a different order than on the back - making that "green" juice really just apple juice with a leaf of spinach.
Labels usually write "this product contains wheat, dairy, etc" in bold letters to make it easy to find if you are in a rush. If the label has too many ingredients and those you've never heard of or can't picture in your mind (sodium nitrate anyone?) put it back!
Step 3: Sodium and sugar
I like to check the salt and sugar content of products before I buy them because it helps me guage how addiciting it will be and how much it will bloat me. If a serving of something contains 300 calories and its sodium content is higher than 300 mg, this product contains way too much salt! A good rule of thumb is for the sodium content (in milligrams) to be equivalent or less than the calories per serving. An exception would be for ingredients like coconut aminos or liquid smoke - condiments that are used in very small quantities.
Sugar content is trickier because our daily recommended added amount is around 25 grams for women and 38 grams for men but natural sugar is found in everything - even quinoa.
If you want to be adament about your sugar intake, consider not buying products with added sugars like honey, agave or maple syrup. Even though these sweeteners are natural, their glycemic loads will spike your blood sugar. If it's a special treat, enjoy your sugar and don't feel guilty. Don't worry about finding sugar grams on packaged foods, if the range is 1-3 grams per serving it's minimal and won't affect your weight or sweet tooth.
Step 4: count your macros (if you want to)
Once you have eliminated all of the bad stuff in your shopping cart you are free to count your macros if you are following a specific diet. Low carb, low fat, high protein, etc.
Overall, aim for ingredients you can recognize and pronounce, buy organic and non GMO as much as possible and don't be fooled by marketing gimmicks like "natural" and "gluten free".