How to Read Food Labels
By Carleton Rivers, MS, RDN, LD
Nutrition labels that are found on food and drink items in your grocery store may seem confusing but can be quite helpful when trying to make healthy diet choices. The following tips will help you to navigate the sea of food labels found in your grocery store.
Reading Nutrition Fact Labels
A Nutrition Facts Label
- Serving Size: Determine what a serving size is and how many servings are in one container or package of the food or drink. This information is found at the top of the nutrition fact label and will determine what amount of the product contains the listed nutrient content.
- Check Calories: After determining the amount per serving size, check out the number of calories found in that particular serving. To the right of the number of calories you will see “Calories from Fat” which might be a bit confusing. Just stick to the total calorie amount when trying to reduce the number of calories you consume.
- % Daily Value: On the right side of the nutrition label, there is a list of “% Daily Value” for almost all of the nutrients except trans fat, sugar, and protein. These percentages are based on a 2,000 calorie diet and show how much of each nutrient makes up those 2,000 calories. For instance, if the total fat per serving is 12 grams and the % daily value is 18%, then 18% of a 2,000 calorie diet would be fat. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans outlines recommended percent ranges for macronutrients such as fat, carbohydrates and protein, but does not include specific percentages for additional nutrients. A helpful tip would be to choose items that have low % daily values (5% or less) for the nutrients that should be limited and high % daily values (20% or more) for the nutrients that should be increased. Specifics on % daily value are explained at the bottom of each nutrition fact label.
- Nutrients to Limit: The amount of fat, cholesterol, and sodium is next on the fact label.
- Total fat is then broken down into saturated fat and trans fat. Some labels may also include monounsaturated fats and polyunsaturated fats. Consuming more unsaturated fats than saturated fats will help to lower your LDL cholesterol levels and raise your HDL cholesterol levels which is good for your heart health. Dietary fat is an important nutrient in the diet and should be consumed in moderation. Avoid all foods that contain trans fats which are linked to higher risks of cardiovascular disease.
- Old dietary guidelines used to recommend limiting dietary cholesterol; however, the 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans reflect the newest research that shows that the consumption of dietary cholesterol does not have a significant effect on a person’s blood cholesterol levels and does not need to be limited. It is recommended that foods containing dietary cholesterol be consumed in moderation, especially those that contain high amounts of saturated fat.
- Sodium is a nutrient that should be limited to prevent or treat high blood pressure. The American Heart Association recommends limiting sodium to 2,400 milligrams per day for healthy individuals and 1,500 milligrams per day for those will elevate blood pressure or a greater risk of high blood pressure.
- Sugar should also be limited but it is hard to determine what kind of sugar is present in a food or beverage item by just reading the nutrition fact label. It would be a good idea to choose products that have a low amount of sugar; however, there is no recommended limit for the amount of total sugar.
- Nutrients to Increase: The types of nutrients on the fact label that are important to get enough of each day include dietary fiber and all of the vitamins and minerals that are found in food products.
- Dietary fiber is located under “Total Carbohydrate” because, like sugar, it is a form of carbohydrate. Fiber is important for gastrointestinal and heart health.
- The vitamins and minerals that are listed towards the bottom of the nutrition label are needed to make up a healthy diet; however, many of these nutrients are found in fresh fruits and vegetables that might not have a nutrition fact label. Choose items that have high % daily values (20% or more) for vitamins and minerals.
- Ingredient List: Under each nutrition label you’ll find a list of ingredients. This list is arranged in descending order from the largest to smallest ingredient amount found in that product. The ingredient list is a good indicator for determining how processed a food might be. You will want to choose products that have short ingredient lists made up of things you recognize. Processed foods usually contain a long list of ingredients that help to preserve the food or beverage so that it will last longer on the grocery store shelves. When choosing items like bread or pasta, look for “whole grains” or “whole wheat flour” as the first ingredient to ensure it is truly whole grain and not refined grain.