Reading food labels is becoming an increasingly necessary skill. For decades the food and beverage industry has been bombarding us with confusing and oftentimes misleading labeling information on the fronts and backs of product packages. More often than not, it’s a deliberate effort to camouflage subpar ingredients.
One thing’s for certain, if a food looks good, most folks will give it a try. But for many, it’s those “Low-Fat”, “Gluten-Free” and “All-Natural” labels that really influence their buying decisions. It’s as if those brandings alone dictate whether or not a food is healthy. Given this reality and the key role of good nutrition in maintaining overall good health, I can’t emphasize enough the importance of learning to read food labels.
It’s really the only way to know what you’re buying and, ultimately, what you’re putting in your body. My goal here is to make it easier for you to make the best food choices possible. So, let’s talk about some of the ins and outs of ‘what you need to know’ when reading food labels.
Decoding Food Labels
The nutrition information on food labels is meant to encourage us consumers to make healthier choices when shopping for food. Problem is, on one hand, there are some who don’t even notice the labeling, and on the other, there are those who don’t know enough to make any real use of the labels in their purchasing decisions. If you’re reading this, you’re probably somewhere in between. Or maybe you’re just looking to improve your label-reading skills.
In the following paragraphs, we’ll take a quick dive into each of the main sections of the “Nutrition Facts” label. This is essentially the standard nutrition information panel required on most packaged foods.
Right off the bat you’ll notice the label displays the serving size and number of calories in a single serving of a product. It also lists values for fat, cholesterol, sodium, carbohydrates, dietary fiber, protein and other nutrients in each serving. You’ll also notice a percent Daily Value (%DV) next to the nutrients. This is basically an estimate of how much a given nutrient in a serving of food contributes to a total daily diet.
When reading food labels, it’s important to note that the %DVs presented are based on an average sized person (150-190 pounds) consuming a daily diet of 2,000-2,500 calories. Based on your weight and many other factors (age, gender and activity levels), your daily needs could be higher or lower than the values presented.
Understanding Servings and Serving Sizes
The very top of the Nutrition Facts panel shows the “serving size” of any given product. This amount of food accounts for one suggested serving. You’ll typically find serving sizes listed in pieces, grams, ounces, tablespoons, cups or other common units of measurement. For instance, a serving of baby carrots might be listed as 12 pieces while a serving of pre-popped popcorn might be listed as 3 cups.
Directly below the serving size section you’ll find a “servings per container” value. This refers to the amount of servings housed in a single product package.
Know that the number of servings per container varies widely from product to product. There may be two, ten, twenty or even more servings in a single package. This is especially important to note when considering the amount of calories, sugars and other ingredients contained in a given food. Oftentimes, food manufacturers will recommend unrealistically small serving sizes so that the calorie counts and other nutrition information appear reasonable.
For instance, the average serving size listed for a breakfast cereal is a cup. Most people pour way more than that in a bowl. I also see this a lot with other seemingly harmless foods like baked snacks and canned soups, and even condiments like ketchup and barbecue sauce. Even if you’re eating otherwise healthy foods, misjudging your portions can easily lead to overeating.
Now, this doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy larger portions. It’s just a matter of monitoring them. Personally, I rarely, if ever, adhere to suggested serving sizes, as I fast intermittently and typically eat large size meals. However, I’m always mindful of my portions relative to suggested servings. Just being mindful can make all the difference in the way you eat.
Breaking Down the Big and Bold “Calories”
Displayed in a large, bold font, the “calories” section of the food label is pretty difficult to miss. The number shown essentially represents the approximate amount of calories a given serving of food contains. Calories themselves are basic units of “energy” housed in three essential macronutrients that I’m sure you’ve heard of: 1) carbohydrates, 2) fat and 3) protein. Macronutrients are measured in grams and contain different amounts of calories per gram.
The big and bold calorie value displayed is basically the sum total of calories from carbs, fat and protein. Carbohydrates and protein yield about four calories per gram while every gram of fat yields about nine calories. This means a food with 10 grams of protein would contain 40 calories from protein while a food with 10 grams of fat would contain 90 calories from fat.
Since fat yields more than twice as many calories as carbohydrates and protein, needless to say, “high-fat” foods generally have higher calorie counts. But don’t let the high calorie tallies mislead you. High-fat whole foods are among the most nutritious – whether extra-virgin olive oil, avocado, nuts and seeds, fatty fish and even lean meats (study up in our Nutrition Glossary to learn more).
This is an especially important point to consider when reading food labels, as many manufacturers brand “low-calorie”, “low-fat” and “fat-free” labels on the product packages of nutrient devoid foods in an effort to appeal to diehard calorie counters and weight watchers. I’m sure you’ve seen such branding on products like pretzels, fruit juice, breakfast cereals, baked chips, ice cream, salad dressings and, of course, those infamous 100-calorie snack packs.
Bear in mind that a 200-calorie portion of walnuts will always be more nutritious than a 100-calorie snack pack.
Interpreting Carbohydrates and Sugars
Midway through the Nutrition Facts panel, you’ll find the “carbohydrates” section denoting the approximate number of carbs a food contains. You’ll also find subsections for dietary fiber, sugars and sometimes sugar alcohols or sweeteners. You’ll find the latter in many “low-carb” foods.
Quality carbs generally contain large amounts of fiber (at least 2 grams per serving), low amounts of added sugars (less than 10% of total calories) AND no or very low quantities of sugar alcohols. Any carb that doesn’t meet all these criteria is likely not a quality one. As you’ve probably already guessed, plant-based whole foods like vegetables, fruits, beans, peas and whole grains are among the best sources for meeting all the above criteria.
If you’re ever in doubt, a good rule of thumb is to first look at the ingredients list of a food label to ensure that a sugar isn’t listed as a first, second or third ingredient. For disease prevention and overall good health, it’s best that your total daily intake of sugar doesn’t exceed 25-37 grams, which equates to around 6-9 teaspoons of table sugar.
When it comes to dietary fiber, know that 25-35 grams per day is associated with a lower disease risk. While fiber is naturally present in plant-based whole foods, many highly processed snack bars, cereals and beverages on the market contain added fiber too. This is where the food industry rears its dirty head. Simply adding fiber to a food doesn’t make it any healthier.
Even if you see “high fiber” branded on a package, look at the Nutrition Facts panel. It’s likely also high in sugar. Similarly, if you see a “no sugar added” or “reduced sugar” label, calculate its sugar content relative to its total calories to see if it’s less than 10% of this amount.
Deciphering “Facts” About Fats
You’ll find a “total fat” value towards the top of the Nutrition Facts panel. Depending on the product, you’ll also find 2-4 subsections highlighting different types of fats, which may include trans and saturated fats, in addition to monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. At some point or another, I’m sure you’ve heard that trans and saturated fats are “unhealthy” or “bad” while monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats are “healthy” or good.”
As there’s a lot of controversy about dietary fats, I encourage you to check out my in-depth post about fats. Despite widespread belief, know that the health impact of consuming saturated fats is not even remotely close to that of trans fats. In fact, day-to-day consumption of foods comprised of trans fats is much more of a contributor poor health than saturated fats could ever be.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t also mention that a diet rich in overly processed carbs and added sugars can do just as much damage to the body as taking in foods comprised of trans fats. I say this because food manufacturers are infamous for stamping “no trans fats” and “saturated fat-free” labels on the packages of otherwise unhealthy products. It’s all in an effort to sway the consumer into believing such branding somehow makes a food healthier.
This is yet another reason why carefully reading food labels is critical.
At the end of the day, when it comes to consuming fat it’s more about the types of fat you eat, how much you eat them and the sum quality of your diet. Also know that certain eating styles may call for consuming more than “normal” amounts of fat. This is perfectly fine so long as you factor in the nutrient compositions of the foods you eat in totality.
Making Basic Sense of Protein
Near the bottom of the “Nutrition Facts” panel, you’ll find a value for “protein” in grams. The general protein recommendation is 10-15% of total daily calories, but consuming an average of 0.40-0.50 grams of protein per one pound of your body weight is a much better target for overall good health. If you regularly engage in strength training or above average amounts of endurance exercise, you might need even more protein than that.
When reading food labels, it’s especially important to understand that proteins aren’t all created equal. Proteins themselves are made up of smaller units called amino acids. The body produces some of these amino acids (“nonessential”) while others must come from the diet (“essential”). Foods containing all ‘essential’ amino acids are classified as “complete” proteins while those foods containing some (but not all) are termed “incomplete.”
Complete protein sources are generally referred to as “high-quality” proteins. These include meats, poultry, seafood, eggs, dairy products and whole soy foods. On the flip side, plant-based whole foods like most grains, cereals, nuts, beans and peas are considered incomplete. Though ‘incomplete,’ you can strategically pair these foods to form ‘complete’ proteins (rice and beans). A diet well-rounded in protein is what’s most important.
Scanning Percent Daily Values for Micronutrients
In addition to the three macronutrients I’ve highlighted above, the Nutrition Facts panel also provides %DVs for key micronutrients (vitamin and minerals) housed in a given food. This offers a good snapshot of your overall intake (study up in our Nutrition Glossary to learn about the micronutrients). When reading food labels, you’ll always see values for vitamin D, calcium, iron, potassium and sodium. These are the only micronutrients required to be on labels.
Now, if a given food contains high amounts of a given micronutrient, you’ll generally see those on the label too. For instance, a food label for chicken might include a %DV for niacin as poultry is known for containing large amounts of this water-soluble vitamin. Similarly, you might see a %DV for vitamin A shown on a package of carrots, as deeply colored veggies are especially rich in this powerful fat-soluble antioxidant.
Again, it’s important to recognize that these micronutrient values are only mere snapshots. As with all other nutrients on food labels, your daily micronutrient needs could be higher or lower. It’s always best to speak to a registered dietitian if you need help determining your individual needs.
Referencing Cholesterol, Potassium and Sodium Counts
You’ll find values for cholesterol, sodium and potassium listed in milligrams (mg) on any given Nutrition Facts panel. I’m sure you’ve already heard a lot about cholesterol. Cholesterol itself has long been thought to raise blood cholesterol levels and increase heart disease risk. Despite common belief, there’s actually no significant link between the cholesterol you eat and your risk of heart disease. This is not to say that the amount you eat doesn’t necessarily matter.
But if you’re really trying to reduce your risk of high cholesterol and related health problems, here’s my advice: Consider the overall nutritional value of any and all foods you eat. Truth is, many of the world’s healthiest foods contain relatively high amounts of cholesterol along with countless other nutrients that promote heart health. Such foods include eggs, fish and even lean meats so it isn’t necessary to avoid them solely due to their cholesterol content.
Then there’s sodium which our bodies do need in trace amounts to carry out vital functions. Problem is, most people consume way more than necessary. As sodium is a preservative, just about every processed food contains it. This holds especially true for frozen and precooked meals, canned goods, processed meats, ready-to-eat baked goods, pasta sauces and condiments.
For some people, too much salt can raise blood pressure levels. So, if you’re using food labels to track your sodium intakes, try not to exceed 2,000-2,400 mg per day.
Finally, there’s potassium which supports fluid and electrolyte balance, heart function and bone health. Since most people don’t meet this goal daily, reading food labels is a great way to ballpark your intake against the current recommendation is 4,700 mg per day.
Translating the Ingredient Lists
Equally as important as understanding the Nutrition Facts panel is an ability to translate a product’s “ingredient list.” This is where the food industry deceives unknowing consumers the most. I’ll start by saying that if the ingredients listed on a package don’t sound familiar, sensible or easily interpretable, the product is not likely to be of high quality.
It’s also important to understand that a presence of familiar ingredients doesn’t necessarily mean a product is of high quality. In fact, savvy food manufacturers purposely refrain from using what I generally call ‘boogeyman’ ingredients like high-fructose corn syrup in an effort to sway you into believing their products are somehow better than the competition.
A cereal, for instance, could be marketed as “free of high fructose corn syrup” but still be high in sugar. This includes cereals sold at health food stores. Whether high fructose corn syrup, table sugar or brown sugar, excessive amounts of any added sugars render a food subpar.
Just use good common sense when reading the ingredient list of a product.
The healthiest of foods only contain whole food ingredients listed as the first through fifth ingredients. Outside the realm of these ingredients are those that are manmade and/or chemically altered. Common examples include hydrogenated oils (trans fats), enriched wheat, sodium benzoate, potassium bromate and any artificial colorings or flavorings.
Reading Food Labels Gets Easier
I threw a lot of information at you. If you’re feeling a bit overwhelmed, know that reading food labels gets easier. At the end of the day, it’s just important to eat sensibly by keeping tabs on your calories and overall intakes of macronutrients and micronutrients. Exercising portion control is also critical, as too much of any food, “good” or “bad,” can surely lead to unwanted weight gain and other health problems.
As you’re browsing our recipes and blogs, you’ll get plenty of ideas on how to make better eating choices. Over time, I promise it’ll get easier to monitor your overall food intake. Consider all the strategies I’ve highlighted here and use mindfulness to make good decisions. You’ll be well on your way to healthier eating.