How to Read a Food Label

Have you ever been in the grocery store, staring at the list of contents on a food label and were confused by the information? Which contents are good or bad for you? Do serving sizes matter? Reading and interpreting the information can be confusing, especially if you're trying to maintain or improve your health. But don't worry, it's not hard, in fact, learning how to read the info on a label will make you a much more informed consumer. 

Food labels list everything that makes up the product and this post breaks down what to pay attention to, which nutrients eat to more or less of, and what %DV means. 

Pay attention to:

Serving Sizes

This number is at the very top of the food label. Its measurement is based on all of the other components of the label below it. When looking at the serving size, pay attention to the amount of servings per container. The number of calories per serving and the serving size itself are not recommendations. Whenever you’re eating or crafting a recipe, ask yourself how much of that product’s nutrients you’re consuming.

Ingredients list

Pay attention to the order in which ingredients are listed. They're listed in order by weight with the heaviest ingredients listed first and are the most dominant ingredients of that product. For instance, if you’re looking at a label for balsamic vinaigrette, the first two ingredients would probably be balsamic vinegar and oil. This shows the vinaigrette consists mostly of those two items. However, this is also a way to locate hidden sugars and salts. Another example, if you’re looking at a bottle of cranberry juice, the first two ingredients could be cranberry juice and water, but if the third ingredient is high fructose corn syrup, that tells you juice has a lot of sugar in it. I’ll discuss hidden sugar and salt in more detail in a future post.

Daily Value (%DV)

This handy little symbol is significant on food labels. This represents how much of a key nutrient counts for a 2,000-calorie diet.  You can see how much the nutrients count as part of their 100% DV, respectively. For instance, the amount of sodium in one serving of ketchup could account for 20% of the recommended amount of sodium for that day. 

Food Claims

Just because a product claims it is fat-fee, sugar free, or sodium or low in those nutrients doesn’t mean its calorie-free. If those nutrients have been reduced, then check which other aspects of the product have been increased in comparison to the regular version of the product. The calories may be higher or the amount of carbohydrates could be higher. Also, you could be missing out on important nutrients of the less-refined product. If a label claims its low-carb, what else has been enhanced? The sodium content? Fat content? If a product is low or fat-free, is it high in sugar? Check the grams for the other nutrients when considering these products. Read more on this topic here. 

Consume less as of these:

Cholesterol, Sodium, Saturated and Trans Fat

When looking at the fat content in a product, you want to look at the kind of fat it contains. Select more products with monounsaturated or polyunsaturated fat and less products with trans and saturated fat. Saturated fats raise LDL (bad) cholesterol and are found in animal products. They also increase the risks of getting heart disease by increasing blood clotting. Trans fat also raises LDL cholesterol and lowers HDL cholesterol.

Watch out for the amount of sodium because high levels contribute to high blood pressure. The American Heart Association recommends that Americans eat no more than 1,500 milligrams of sodium per day. Canned goods, salad dressings, and other packaged foods are typically high in sodium. Opt for frozen or fresh vegetables and make your own salad dressings at home. 

Consume more of these:  

Fiber, Vitamins and Minerals

Foods high in fiber keep you satiated for longer periods of time and help manage cholesterol and blood sugar. Fibrous foods include fruits, vegetables, barley, brown rice, and other whole grained foods. You’ll also find some of these foods will also provide the essential vitamins and minerals your body needs such as vitamin A, C, iron and calcium.

Understanding the information on food labels is important when making dietary decisions, whether if your goal is weight loss, gain, or managing a chronic illness. This is a major step to becoming an informed consumer. It doesn’t have to be hard, but just a little information can make a big difference in your diet and reduce the chances of obesity and other health problems.