How to Read a Food Label

Healthy eating starts with knowing the facts about what you are putting in your mouth. While reading nutrition labels helps you make wise food choices, knowing how to read the the “Nutrition Facts” on a food label and not relying on package labels like “healthy” or “low-fat” is a key step. Being in better control of your eating habits helps you to feel in better control of other aspects of your life.

Remember – food is not the enemy. It has sustained us for millenia. Eating should be an adventure, not an ordeal. The information below can help you make quick, informed choices that contribute to healthy eating through more informed label reading.

FDA-labelServing Size – Check the serving size and number of servings. The Nutrition Facts Label information is based on ONE serving, but many packages contain more. What the food company says is a serving size may not actually be what you eat for a serving. Look at the serving size and how many servings you are actually consuming. If you double the servings you eat, you double the calories and nutrients, including the % DVs. Most importantly, when you compare calories and nutrients between brands, check to see if the serving size is the same.

Calories – Tally up the “Calories” and “Calories from Fat”. This section on the label tells you the total number of calories in each serving of the food and the number of those calories which are derived from fat. Calories provide a measure of how much energy you get from eating one serving of the food. If you are trying to manage (lose, gain or maintain) your weight, the number of calories you consume counts. For many people, this is the first and most important stop on the label. But a higher-calorie food might be worth eating if it also contains lots of nutrients.
For example, one serving of macaroni and cheese may provide 250 calories, with 110 calories from fat. If you ate 2 servings, you would consume 500 calories and 220 of those calories would be from fat.

Total Fat – Add up the “Total Fat”. Total fat includes fats that are good for you, such as monounsaturated, polyunsaturated and omega-3 fats (usually from liquid and plant sources, such as canola oil and nuts) and fats that are not so good, such as saturated and trans fats (from animal or vegetable sources). Monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats can help lower your blood cholesterol and protect your heart. Trans fats are also known as “hydrogenated” and “partially hydrogenated” fats. These are formed during the process of converting liquid oils into solid fats, such as shortening and stick margarine. Hydrogenation increases the shelf life and stabilizes the flavor of these fats. Partially hydrogenated fats are currently considered the worst fats for our health. If most of the fat content comes from healthy unsaturated fat, you’re probably good to go. If the fat is mainly saturated and/or the product has any trans fat, put it back on the shelf. Trans fat has been shown to increase levels of “bad” LDL cholesterol while decreasing levels of “good” HDL cholesterol — a double health whammy. Don’t be fooled by a label that lists 0 grams (g) trans fat. Because of a labeling loophole, a product can contain up to 0.5g trans fat per serving and say it has none. Check the ingredient list: If it includes partially hydrogenated oil, then there is trans fat in there. Shortening is another source of trans fat.

Sodium ContentLook at the “Sodium” content. Sodium is also known as table salt and it is a hidden ingredient in many foods, especially processed food, such as canned soups and tomato sauces. Excess sodium can raise blood pressure, which increases heart disease risk, and it may be a sign of a more highly processed (read: not so good for you) food. Try to set the cutoff at 805 milligrams (mg) per serving — about a third of the recommended daily limit for sodium (2,300 mg).

How Much Cholesterol? – Find out how much “Cholesterol” is in your item. This tells you how much cholesterol you get from eating one serving of the food. There are two types of cholesterol – HDL, known as the “good” cholesterol and LDL, the “bad” cholesterol.

Carbohydrates – Identify the “Total Carbohydrates”. This number represents the total of all the different types of carbohydrates you consume from eating one serving of the food. This number doesn’t distinguish between naturally occurring sugars (like lactose in milk or fructose in fruit) and added sugar (like high-fructose corn syrup or brown rice syrup). A better move: Look at the ingredients for sources of added sugar (see next slide). Look for the words sugar, as in palm sugar or invert sugar; sweetener, as in corn sweetener; or syrup, as in brown rice syrup or malt syrup. Also watch for words ending in ose, like fructose or glucose.
If sugar is one of the first two ingredients, don’t bring it home. Ingredients are ordered by volume, so the higher up on the list an ingredient is, the more of it a product contains. This is an easy way to spot foods that include a lot of added sugar. (Naturally occurring sugar won’t be listed here.) But this method isn’t foolproof. Sometimes, manufacturers split up sugar into dextrose, high-fructose corn syrup, cane crystals and so on, so none of them are the first ingredient, even though if you added them up, they would be. If you see this, you should consider avoiding any product if there is sugar in more than one form.

Dietary Fiber – Work out the “Fiber” content. This number tells you how many grams of dietary fiber is in one serving of the food. Dietary Fiber is the undigestible portion of plant food. Look for at least 3g per serving in any product that contains grains, including bread, crackers, pasta and even some soups.

Protein – View the “Protein” amount. This number tells you how much protein you obtain from consuming one serving of the food.

Vitamins & MineralsLook at the “Vitamins and Minerals”. The food may contain several vitamins, such as Vitamin A, B, C or E as well as minerals such as iron and calcium.

Percent Daily Value (%DV) – See the “Percent Daily Value”. The asterisk (*) after this heading refers to the information at the bottom of the label, which states “% daily values are based on a 2,000-calorie diet”. The Daily Value (DV) is the amount of each nutrient that’s considered sufficient for most healthy adults. A food that contains anywhere from 10 percent to 19 percent of the DV is considered a good source of a nutrient.

Information at the Bottom of the Label – Finally, don’t forget to look at the “Information at the Bottom of the Label”. This chart is based on a 2,000-calorie diet. This information must be on all food labels, although the chart that follows is not required on small packages if the label is too small. However, the information is dietary advice from public health experts for all Americans and is the same for all products. This is applicable also in many other countries, following dietary advice provided by individual an country’s food advisory experts. It shows the upper and lower limits for each nutrient based on a 2,000-calorie diet. Let’s use the macaroni and cheese example. One serving would provide 18% of the Daily Value of the possible 100% Daily Value for your total fat intake. That leaves 82% that you could consume from other sources for that day. If you ate two servings, you would consume 36% of your Daily Value for fat, leaving 64% to be consumed from other sources.