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. But once you get to know the lingo, and learn to adjust those recommendations with your own daily caloric needs in mind, reading food labels can become an easy way to help keep track of what you and your family are eating. Here, what you need to know when it comes to reading food labels.
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. If you aren’t sure what a cup of something looks like, use a measuring 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, which can help you to make smart choices. When you’re comparing products with similar overall calorie counts, try to choose the item with fewer calories from fat, or choose foods that contain healthier fats, such as monounsaturated fats or omega-3s rather than saturated or trans fats.
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.
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. When checking a label for sodium, try this rule of thumb: Allow 1 to 2 milligrams per calorie. For example, if a serving has 200 calories, ideally it should contain less than 400 milligrams of sodium.
Cholesterol: Cholesterol is found in animal products, such as meat and dairy. Eating too many foods that are high in cholesterol can raise your LDL levels, increasing your risk of heart disease and stroke, so it’s important to try to choose low-cholesterol foods. Aim to consume less than 300 mg of cholesterol each day, and even less if you have heart disease.
Total Carbohydrates: While the low-carb diet craze may be largely behind us, there is still a certain stigma attached to carbohydrate consumption. However, the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans suggest getting about half of our daily calories from carbohydrates. Steel-cut oats, brown rice, whole grain bread, beans, nuts, seeds, fruits and vegetables are all great choices.
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—fruits and vegetables—only come with labels if you buy them canned or frozen. To find the fiber counts for your favorite fruits and vegetables, consider downloading an app that lists high-fiber foods, or check the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s website (fda.gov) to find downloadable charts.
Sugars: 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. Added sugars should account for no more than 10 percent of your total daily calories, so aim to limit your consumption of these products in favor of those that contain no added sugars.
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 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.
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|