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Your Guide to Reading Food Labels

Jan 11 2021
9 min read
Overhead shot of woman reading food label on jar.

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 you may be eating more or less. In fact, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) now requires updated nutrition labels that make it easier for consumers to make better informed food choices.

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 nutrition facts:

Serving Size

This information is 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. Servings are now listed in larger, bolder type than they were previously.

Calories

The number listed represents one serving of food, not the entire package, so remember that when doling out your portions.
Percent Daily Value: This number tells us 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 these percentages 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. In 2015, the FDA mandated that companies remove partially hydrogenated oils (PHOs), the major source of artificial trans fat in the food supply, from their processed foods. You’ll still want to limit your consumption of naturally occurring trans fats, such as meat and full-fat dairy products. Note that labels can legally claim to contain zero grams of trans fats if the food has less than 0.5 grams of trans fats in one serving.

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 a flavoring agent and a preservative.

Cholesterol

This substance 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 that are high in saturated fat, not foods that are 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 related risk factors.

Total Carbohydrates

The 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends that fiber-rich carbohydrates provide most of the calories in a healthy diet – about three-quarters of your daily intake. Choose whole-food, minimally processed carbs, like steel-cut oats, brown rice and other whole-grain products, beans, nuts, seeds, fruits, and vegetables. Avoid refined carbs (including refined flour and processed sugar), as they increase insulin levels and contribute to higher LDL cholesterol.

Dietary Fiber

Most Americans are lacking when it comes to daily fiber, so aiming to consume 20 to 40 grams each day is important. The catch is that some of the most excellent sources of dietary fiber – vegetables and 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.

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 updated nutrition labels 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

These are listed in descending order, with the most prevalent ingredient 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; this 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 information 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 vs. 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