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Your Guide to Reading Food Labels

Take the guesswork out of making smart shopping choices
Written by 
Canyon Ranch Staff
Canyon Ranch Reviewer: 
Updated on: 
April 8, 2014

You can learn a lot about what you’re eating and drinking from reading a food label—if you can make sense of all the information it contains, that is. Labels can be confusing, with percentages to keep track of, terms you may not be familiar with and recommendations that are based on the assumption that you are consuming a certain number of calories, when in fact you may be eating more or less. In fact, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is proposing updating food label requirements to encourage healthier eating; with a couple years we may see labels that are less confusing, more realistic and based on newer science.

For now, it’s wise to get to know the lingo, adjust the recommendations with your own daily caloric needs in mind and get a handle on some of the newer thinking on nutrition. That way, reading food labels can help you keep track of what you and your family are really eating. Although there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to healthy eating, here are some basic guidelines for what you need to know when it comes to reading food labels.

Nutrition Facts

Serving Size: Serving sizes are provided in familiar units, such as cups, followed by the metric amount and the amount per package. The FDA standardizes them for similar foods based on surveys of typical consumption. Studies continue to show, however, that recommended serving sizes are often smaller than what we typically consume, especially for packaged foods. (Who actually sticks to a half cup of ice cream, for example?) If you aren’t sure what a serving size of something looks like, use a measuring spoon or cup to scoop an accurate amount—after a while, it may get easier to eyeball a proper serving on your own.

Calories: The number of calories listed represents one serving of food, not the entire package, so remember that when doling out your portions. Most labels break down the number of calories to show how many come from fat, but that’s something the FDA may be changing, since the type of fat we eat actually matters more than the amount. When you’re comparing products with similar overall calorie counts, try to choose the item with few calories from saturated or trans fats, the unhealthy kinds.

Percent Daily Value: The percent daily value describes what percentage of the daily recommended consumption of a given nutrient is in one serving of a food. The caveat here (and it’s a big one) is that the percentages are based on a 2,000-calorie diet—meaning that if your calorie intake is higher or lower, the percentages listed are no longer accurate. It is important that you keep your own personal eating habits in mind and not take percent daily values at face value.

Total Fat: Food labels are required to list the total fat content in a serving of the product, and they must further break this down into a listing of saturated fat and trans fats, if applicable. The National Cholesterol Education Program recommends that no more than 10 percent of your total calories come from saturated fats, as they can increase your levels of LDL (“bad”) cholesterol as well as your risk for type 2 diabetes. Trans fats can also increase LDL levels, while lowering your HDL (“good”) cholesterol, so it is recommended that you do not consume any products containing added trans fats, and limit the amount of foods you eat that contain naturally occurring trans fats, such as meat and full-fat dairy products. If a food contains less than 0.5 grams of trans fats in one serving, the label can legally say it contains zero grams. In that case, “partially hydrogenated oil” (another name for trans fats) will be included in the ingredient list. Healthier fats to look for on that list: monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats.

Sodium: Presented in milligrams, the sodium content of a particular food is an important number to note. The average American consumes approximately 3,400 milligrams of sodium per day, much more than the recommended 2,200 milligrams (or less than 1,500 if you have high blood pressure, are African American or are over the age of 50). Processed and packaged foods are particularly important to check for sodium, as salt is often used in these products as both a flavoring agent and a preservative.

Cholesterol: Cholesterol is found in animal products, such as meat and dairy. However, most of the cholesterol in our blood that contributes to heart disease and stroke risk is actually related to foods high in saturated fat, not foods high in cholesterol. (Saturated fats stimulate our livers to produce LDL cholesterol.) That means that although the amount of cholesterol in the foods we eat is somewhat important, it’s less important than was once thought. If you have heart disease or are at risk for it (if you have diabetes or a family history of heart disease, for example), dietary cholesterol is more of a factor for you. Aim to consume less than 300 mg of cholesterol each day, and even less if you have heart disease or are at risk for it.

Total Carbohydrates: While the low-carb diet craze may be largely behind us, it’s wise to opt for whole-food, minimally processed carbs over refined ones. A diet high in refined carbs (including refined flour and processed sugar) increases insulin levels, which is associated with higher LDL cholesterol. The 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans suggest getting about half of our daily calories from carbohydrates (at Canyon Ranch we recommend even less). Choose whole-food carbs, like steel-cut oats, brown rice and other whole-grain products, beans, nuts, seeds, fruits and vegetables.

Dietary Fiber: Most Americans are lacking when it comes to daily fiber, so aiming to consumed 20 to 40 grams each day is important. The catch is that some of the most excellent sources of dietary fiber—vegetables, fruits—only come with labels if you buy them canned or frozen. To find the fiber counts for your favorite fruits and vegetables, as well as beans, nuts, seeds and whole grains, consider downloading an app that lists high-fiber foods, or check the FDA’s website (fda.gov) to find downloadable charts.

Sugars: The most recent guidelines recommend that women consume no more than 6 teaspoons (24 grams) of added sugar per day and that men get no more than 9 teaspoons (36 grams) daily. When it comes to the sweet stuff, be sure to read ingredient lists carefully: Many products like soft drinks, fruit drinks, candies and sweets contain added sugars, often with names like high-fructose corn syrup, fruit juice concentrate, dextrose and sucrose, which usually provide insignificant amounts of vitamins, minerals or other essential nutrients. Aim to limit your consumption of these products in favor of those that contain no added sugars. (The new labels may list grams of added sugar, making it much easier to spot.)

Protein: A diet that consists of 12 to 30 percent protein is recommended, and most Americans have no problem meeting these numbers. However, many of our protein sources—meats, dairy products and nuts or nut butters—can also contain high levels of saturated fat, so pay attention to both percentages when reading labels. Opt for lower-fat, high-protein sources when possible, such as low-fat yogurt, legumes, lean cuts of meat and skinless poultry.

Ingredients: Ingredients are listed in descending order, so that the most prevalent ingredient is first. With that in mind, you should strive to find products with quality, natural ingredients listed first whenever possible. Be wary of products with long lists of tough-to-pronounce ingredients that you’ve never heard of, which is often a good indication that the item contains artificial additives, preservatives and other man-made substances that don’t provide much in the way of nutritional benefit. 

Label Lingo

In addition to understanding the nutrition facts included in food packaging, it can be helpful to get to know the facts behind certain buzzwords often used to entice shoppers. Below you’ll find a list of some popular terms used on packaged foods and what they actually mean:

What it Says What it Means
calorie free less than 5 calories per serving
sugar free less than 0.5 g of natural of processed sugars per serving
sodium (or salt) free 5 mg or less of sodium per serving
trans fat free less than 0.5 g of trans fat per serving
fat free less than 0.5 g of fat per serving
low fat 3 g or less of fat per serving
reduced fat at least 25 percent less fat than the original product, with at least 3 fewer grams of fat per serving
lean less than 10 g of fat, 2 g of saturated fat and 95 mg of cholesterol
cholesterol free less than 2 mg of cholesterol and 2 or less grams of saturated fat
low in cholesterol 20 mg or fewer of cholesterol and 2 g or less of saturated fat
reduced cholesterol at least 25 percent less cholesterol than the original product and 2 g or less of saturated fat
high fiber 5 g or more of fiber per serving
good source of fiber 2.5 to 4.9 g of fiber per serving

 

Reference(s) 
The American Heart Association
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Center for Science in the Public Interest
Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2010
Harvard School of Public Health
The Mayo Clinic
U.S. Food and Drug Administration