How To Read The Food Labels At Grocery Stores

navigating the grocery store's mysteries
How To Read The Food Labels At Grocery Stores: Loaded grocery cart between aisles at store
© Dreamstime / Pressmaster

Have you ever felt overwhelmed trying to read food labels at the grocery store? How many times have you stood there trying to figure out whether this is a nutritious product or not? What is GMO? Does organic really matter? Is there sugar in this? Let alone trying to pronounce half of what is on the label! Well, my friend, you are not alone. It can be a tricky area to navigate, especially when some companies are “hiding” bad ingredients under different names or using clever “keywords” to grab your attention. You think you have purchased a good quality product, only to find out you have been duped.

Let's get back to basics and talk about what to look for, what to avoid, and what you want to see on your food packaging. Here are some tips to help you on your journey to better health:

Does organic really matter?

Yes! It absolutely does. Non-organic produce can be ridden with pesticides. Did you know that many of the insecticides and herbicides, such as glyphosate, that are used to treat produce have been found to be carcinogenic or hormone replicators, or to have negative effects on the development of children? Choosing organic means that you reduce your exposure to these harmful chemicals and also get more nutrients for your money. Organic foods have been proven to be more nutritious with higher levels of vitamin C, phosphorus, iron, magnesium, and phytochemicals.

How do you navigate the organic section at the grocery store? Here are some tips to get you started.

Buy in season and buy local 

Chances are if the produce is in season, it will be less expensive. It will also likely have more nutritional value as it has not had to travel thousands of kilometres to arrive at your store. Ask yourself, how far has this juicy tomato travelled to get here? If it came from a location that is far away, you can bet that it has been sitting in a box somewhere for weeks before you get to enjoy it. Fresh is best! Also, buying local supports your local farmers, and who can compete with that?

Plan your meals 

It sounds simple, I know. Making a list of meals and snacks for the week allows you to purchase what you need. This way you aren't buying produce that will go to waste. Did you know Canadians waste about 40% of their food? Plan it out and you will notice less waste in your trash can (and save money!).

Can't find fresh?

Go frozen. In the winter months, depending where you live, it can be difficult to get fresh local produce. In this case, many stores offer organic frozen fruits and veggies. Flash-freezing these fruits and veggies protects the nutrient content so you can be sure you are still getting all the nutritious goodness you need.

Check out the Dirty Dozen

The Environmental Working Group lists 12 items of produce to try and buy organic every time. A general rule of thumb is the thicker the skin, the less the worry. This means a fruit such as watermelon would be safer than, say, an apple.


The dreaded genetically modified organisms. These “frankenfoods,” as some like to call them, are organisms whose genetic material has been manipulated in a laboratory through genetic engineering (essentially, laboratory food!). The scary thing about GMO foods is that they saturate much of the food market today without us even knowing we're eating them, because they're not required to be identified on labels. In the US, 80% of processed foods are genetically engineered. There are concerns that laboratory foods can lead to an array of health concerns such as the production of new allergens, antibiotic resistance, increased toxicity, and decreased nutrition. What do we do about this? Enter the non-GMO project – that pretty little blue logo with the orange butterfly. They ensure the availability of non-GMO foods and give us the ability to make an informed choice on whether to buy GMO or not. Look for that logo on things such as chips and crackers, alternative dairy products such as soy milk, cereal and breakfast foods, and herbs and spices, just to name a few. Don't see the logo? Take a peek in the ingredients list to see if they specify if the ingredients are non-GMO or not. Still don't see it? Chances are, the product you are holding has GMOs. 

Sugary suspicions 

Let's move on to the wonderful world of sugars, shall we? I first want to differentiate between “added sugars” and “naturally occurring sugars.” Added sugars are pesky ingredients in processed foods. Natural sugars are sugars that, you guessed it, occur naturally in food. This would include the natural sugars found in fruits, vegetables, and other plants.

Canadians eat an astonishing 88 pounds of sugar a year. Yes, 88 pounds! Sugar is often found under different names, so it’s no wonder we consume so much of it. Excessive sugar intake can increase your risk of developing type 2 diabetes, metabolic syndrome, and excessive weight gain, just to name a few. How do we spot these sneaky sugars? Here are some things to watch for:

Ingredients ending in “ose” 

If you see an ingredient ending in this suffix, chances are, it's sugar. Examples of this would be sucrose, maltose, dextrose, fructose, glucose, galactose, lactose, high-fructose corn syrup, and glucose solids.

Other common sugars

Cane juice, dehydrated cane juice, cane juice solids, cane juice crystals, dextrin, maltodextrin, dextran, barley malt, beet sugar, corn syrup, corn syrup solids, caramel, buttered syrup, carob syrup, brown sugar, date sugar, malt syrup, diatase, diatastic malt, fruit juice, fruit juice concentrate, dehydrated fruit juice, fruit juice crystals, golden syrup, turbinado, sorghum syrup, refiner's syrup, ethyl maltol, maple syrup, yellow sugar.

Yikes! This can be overwhelming, but if you look for healthy sugar alternatives you will conquer this quest. Some alternatives to look for on the labels are:

  • stevia
  • coconut palm sugar
  • raw honey
  • pure maple syrup
  • xylitol

Analyzing Additives 

Lastly, let's chat about additives. There are a frightening number of additives in our food today, and they have been linked to everything from allergies to behavioural issues. I want to focus on a few of the most common, but as general practice, I always suggest this advice. If there are ingredients in the product that you cannot pronounce…chances are it's an additive and not nutritious in any way. Avoid. Example, I can make a delicious salad dressing at home using 2-3 ingredients. Why does the one off the shelf contain 15? Exactly.

Here is a list of the most common additives to avoid:


This “no calorie sweetener” is absolutely toxic. This sweetener is made up of a combination of the amino acids phenylalanine and aspartic acid, plus methanol. Methanol in aspartame is known to be poisonous even in small amounts and quickly breaks down into formaldehyde, which is a known carcinogen. 

Sodium Nitrate

This additive is commonly found in preserved meat products such as sausages and canned meats. It may be linked to gastric cancers, though some studies are controversial.

Artificial colouring 

These are chemical dyes used to colour foods and drinks, and have been linked to hyperactivity in children. How to spot them? Look for colour names in your foods such as FD&C blue no.1 (brilliant blue FCF) , FD&C yellow no.5 (tartrazine), and FD&C red no.3 (erythrosine). These are just a few. If you see what resembles a paint colour in the ingredients list, it might be a colouring agent.

Trans fat

These partially hydrogenated oils are often used for deep frying foods, and they can be found in baked goods and margarine. These oils have been shown to lower a person's HDL ( good cholesterol) and raise LDL (bad cholesterol), thus increasing your risk for heart disease and type 2 diabetes.

Choosing to eat healthy, nutritious food does not have to be complicated. We need to get back to our roots. Literally. Let's remember that 50 years ago, people were growing their own food and knew exactly where it came from and what was in it. With some guidance, the daunting task of navigating the grocery store and the complex labels we have in front of us can be simplified. As you get used to spotting the ingredients to avoid, you will be able to purchase food for your family with confidence. Happy shopping!


1. Arnold L. et al. "Artificial food colors and attention deficient/hyperactivity: conclusions to dye for".

2. Crinnion W. "Organic foods contain high levels of certain nutrients, lower levels of pesticides, and may provide health benefits for the consumer". Alt med review. 2010.

3. Choose Canada Organic

4. The Non-GMO Project

5. "How much sugar do you eat in a year?" (MacLean's Magazine infographic)