Reading Nutrition Labels
Nutrition labels can help us make healthier choices about what we eat. Nutrition Facts labels and Ingredients are found on all packaged foods and some fresh food at the grocery store. They can be especially useful when comparing different food items.
However, keep in mind that some of the healthiest foods (such as fresh fruits and vegetables) may not have a Nutrition Facts label. Here are some tips to keep in mind when reading nutrition labels.
How to Read a Nutrition Facts Label
- The first thing to look for is the serving size. This helps you figure out how many servings are contained in the package of food. One bag of chips might contain just one serving, but it could also contain 10 servings, so it's important to know what is being counted as a serving. Sometimes the label will also tell you how many pieces (of chips or cookies, for example) count as one serving.
- Next you should look at the number of calories listed. Remember, this is the number of calories per serving, so if you drink the whole bottle of juice, and the whole bottle contain three servings, you just consumed three times the number of calories listed on the label.
- Look for the nutrients you want to limit, particularly saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol, and sodium. Remember, the amount listed is per serving, so be sure to multiply correctly if you are eating multiple servings. Try to avoid foods with more than 20 percent of your Daily Value of fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, or sodium. (A general rule of thumb for daily values: less than 5 percent is considered "low" and above 20 percent is considered "high.")
- Check if the food is a "good source" of the nutrients that you want to get enough of, particularly dietary fiber, calcium, and iron. A good source of that nutrient will contain at least 10 to 19 percent of your daily value.
- Keep in mind that the percent daily value is based on a 2,000-calorie diet. If you are particularly active, you may need more than the amounts suggested by the label.
- Some important things you may see on a nutrient label:
- Carbohydrates: This includes sugar, fiber, and starch. Sugars are often hidden in the ingredients as high-fructose corn syrup. Aim for less than 300 milligrams of sugar a day, and try to get most of your carbohydrates from fiber, not sugar.
- Fiber: Look for foods with high fiber (5 or more grams per servings).
- Total Fat: This includes all types of fat: saturated, monounsaturated, polyunsaturated, and trans fats. The American Heart Association recommends getting between 25 to 35 percent of your daily calories from fat and getting less than 7 percent of your total calories from saturated fat (that's 16 grams if you eat a 2,000 calorie diet).
- Cholesterol: Limit to no more than 300 milligrams a day.
- Sodium: Limit to 1,500 milligrams per day. High levels can lead to high blood pressure, even in young adults.
- Vitamins and Minerals: Look at how many and which kinds you are getting from your food, and if you think you are missing some, ask you doctor about taking a dietary supplement.
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How to Read an Ingredients Label
The list of ingredients can tell us which ingredients are present in the food and relatively how much of each ingredient is present.
- The ingredients listed at the top of the list are present in the highest amounts. Try to avoid foods that have added sugars (such as sucrose, glucose, and high fructose corn syrup) or refined flours as the first or second ingredient.
- The ingredients lowest on the list are those present in the smallest amount.
- Try to choose foods with fewer ingredients instead of lots of ingredients.
- Beware that some ingredients will be listed as unfamiliar names.
- Added sugar could be listed as sucrose, glucose, high-fructose corn syrup or corn syrup, agave nectar, barley malt syrup, or dehydrated cane juice, to name just a few.
- Sodium might be listed as salt, sodium benzoate, disodium, monosodium glutamate (MSG), or sodium nitrite.
- Trans fats will usually be be listed as partially hydrogenated vegetable oil or hydrogenated oil.
- A good rule of thumb is that if you don't recognize the name as a food, it probably isn't something you want to eat.
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public health education intern
Reviewed By: Nancy Brown, Ph.D.
Last Reviewed: August 2013
Below are links PAMF accessed when researching this topic. PAMF does not sponsor or endorse any of these sites, nor does PAMF guarantee the accuracy of the information contained on them.
Dietary Guidelines for Americans: 2010, U.S. Department of Agriculture, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.