How to read a food label
The Nutrition Facts food label, first mandated in 1990 and most recently updated in 2016, has evolved to be a wonderful tool to compare food products. However, this tool is only useful if you know how to read and interpret the values that are listed. Reading a food label can be a skill to develop, but we’re here to help break it down into easy-to-follow steps that will assist you in choosing the right foods for your household.
Start at the top
The top section of the food label will contain product specific information such as serving size, servings per container, and calories per serving. Start here when reading the food label because the nutrient information references the serving size listed. If you eat or drink half the serving size listed or double that serving size, the nutrient values need to be adjusted accordingly. In the food label example shown, one serving (⅔ cup) has 230 calories. If you consumed the entire package (8 servings) it would be 1,840 calories. This is an important piece of information for someone trying to achieve or maintain a healthy weight and balance the calories they are consuming. For help determining your own caloric needs, check out this simple calculator from the USDA MyPlate website.
Examine the nutrients
This is where you can utilize the label to select foods that support your individual nutritional needs. Here you will be able to identify what foods contain adequate amounts of the nutrients you want to consume more of, or to help choose the foods with lower amounts of nutrients you’d like to limit.
The total amount of fat and types of fat are included here. Heart healthy sources of fat include monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. Saturated fat is a less healthy fat, and a good goal is to find foods with less than 2 grams per serving of saturated fat and 0 grams per serving of trans fat.
In the past, cholesterol was in the spotlight for determining if a product was “healthy” or not. In more recent years, we’ve identified saturated fats and trans fat to be the bigger risk factors for heart disease.
Aim for products that are lower in sodium. The current U.S. Dietary Guidelines recommend consuming no more than 2,300 milligrams of sodium per day as part of a healthy diet.
Three things make up the total grams of carbohydrate: starch, fiber, and sugar. Starch is not listed on most nutrition labels, so checking the total grams of carbohydrate (instead of the grams of sugar) can be an important number for someone monitoring their carbohydrate intake, like someone with diabetes.
For fiber, try to choose foods with at least 3 to 5 grams of fiber per serving to help regulate bowel movements, improve glucose control, and lower cholesterol levels.
One exciting change in the most recent revamping of nutrition labels was the addition of added sugar. Previously, it was difficult to differentiate sugar that was naturally occurring in a product vs sugar that was added during processing. For example, a flavored yogurt has both added and naturally occurring sugars. In the example food label above, added sugars are listed as “includes 10 grams of added sugar.” This means that of the 12 total grams of sugar, 10 grams is added sugar. It is recommended to limit the amount of added sugar in your diet.
Ensure adequate intake of this key nutrient. Protein is an important part of a healthy diet and is involved in many functions in our body.
Vitamins and minerals
Vitamin D, calcium, iron, and potassium are listed at the bottom. Individuals with certain chronic diseases may need to monitor intake of these nutrients and can check here for these totals.
Check the percentages
The % Daily Value (DV) listed along the right side of the label is the percentage of that nutrient based on a 2,000 calorie diet. Keep in mind, not everyone needs or eats exactly 2,000 calories per day, so these numbers may not equate to the percentage of your own diet. A good rule of thumb is to choose foods with a % DV of 5% or less of nutrients you want to consume less of (like sodium) and foods with 10 to 20% or more of nutrients you want to consume more of (like fiber or calcium).
What about the ingredients list?
Checking the ingredients list can be a helpful tool as well, especially if you’re allergic or intolerant to certain foods. It can also be helpful to fact check a product; note that ingredients are always listed from highest quantity to lowest quantity. For example, when comparing applesauce products, the first ingredient should be listed as “apples” instead of “sugar.” One other key thing to look for in the ingredients list is any ingredient listed as “partially hydrogenated” or “hydrogenated,” which is an indication that the product contains unhealthy trans fat.
Reading the label of every item you buy may sound like a lot of work. However, with a bit of practice, this helpful skill will make grocery shopping a breeze and empower you to make decisions that support your personal health goals.
If you have more questions about reading food labels, it’s always a great idea to speak with a registered dietitian. Registered dietitians are the only credentialed experts qualified to address your unique health questions.
Institute of Medicine (US) Committee on Examination of Front-of-Package Nutrition Rating Systems and Symbols; Wartella EA, Lichtenstein AH, Boon CS, editors. Front-of-Package Nutrition Rating Systems and Symbols: Phase I Report. Washington (DC): National Academies Press (US); 2010. 2, History of Nutrition Labeling. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK209859/
U.S. Department of Agriculture and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2020-2025. 9th Edition. December 2020. Available at DietaryGuidelines.gov
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