How to Read Nutrition Labels

June 10, 2019

People read food labels for different reasons. What you eat is up to you, and looking at food labels can help you be more aware about what exactly you’re putting in your body, especially if you’re trying to meet healthy-eating goals. Eating healthy means choosing different types of food to get all the nutrients you need, and avoiding all the extras that contribute to weight gain and poor health.

Most packaged foods have a Nutrition Facts label, which allows you to check servings, calories, fat, carbs, vitamins and more. Start with the list of ingredients, and look for healthy items such as whole-wheat flour, soy, oats and olive oil. Keep in mind that if it’s a long word you can’t pronounce, it’s likely unhealthy. Also, as we mentioned in a previous blog post, look out for unhealthy saturated and trans fats, and instead try to eat polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats found in fish, nuts and vegetable oils.

As you make your way down the label, here’s what you can look out for.

Serving Size
Look at the serving size and how many servings you are actually eating. If you eat twice the serving size, you also double everything else on the list. The serving size is also a good indicator of how much you should eat — often, there are two or more servings in items many people who struggle with portion control will eat the whole thing in one sitting.

Calories and Percentage of Daily Value
Calories measure how much energy you get from a serving of food. Many Americans consume more calories than they need without getting the recommended intakes of vitamins and nutrients. The calorie section of the label can help you manage your weight. Also, take a look at the “% Daily Value (% DV) column” on your labels. This percentage, based on a 2,000-calorie-a-day diet, helps gauge how much nutrients one serving of food contains, compared with the recommendations for the whole day. A DV of 5% DV or less is low, and 20% DV or more is high. Likewise, 400 or more calories per serving of a single food item is high.

When reading the ingredient list, make sure added sugars are not one of the first few ingredients. Other names for sugar are sucrose, glucose, high fructose corn syrup, corn syrup, maple syrup, and fructose. Evaluate the total grams of carbohydrates — which includes sugar, complex carbohydrates and fiber — rather than only grams of sugar.

Sodium and Nutrients
Look to reduce the amount of sodium (salt) you eat — which likely comes from processed foods, not a salt shaker — and increase the amount of potassium you consume by eating more potatoes, plain yogurt, prune juice and bananas. And remember, your body also needs fiber, vitamins A, C, and D, calcium, and iron. Eating enough of these nutrients can improve your health and help reduce the risk of some diseases and poor health conditions.