How to Read Food Nutrition Labels Effectively

Understanding how to read nutrition labels can help you determine which foods you should and should not eat. As a skill, knowing how to read food labels can save you time and headaches associated with this task.

While you cannot familiarize yourself with every ingredient on food packaging, you can become aware of harmful ingredients and control what you consume.

The following sections explain the importance of reading food labels, when doing so is necessary and how labels can enable you to purchase and eat healthier foods. Not only can labels tell you when to avoid a product due to food allergies, but they can also help you maintain your weight goals and limit your calorie intake. Additionally, a nutrition label allows you to compare the nutritional value of food products to  . If you want to become a more informed consumer, you should review the information in the sections below.

What are nutrition labels?

Nutrition labels are stickers posted on the packaging of all food items and beverages and are outlined by a table. Each food label provides you with various types of information regarding the item’s ingredients and how it can help you reach recommended nutritional goals based on your calorie intake. Labels are required by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and are divided into categories based on the value of ingredients. A description of these categories is as follows:

  • General nutrition facts. This category appears at the top of each food label and lists the serving size for the item and approximately how many servings are in the package. This section is often highlighted in green and is found beneath the Nutrition Facts header.
  • After the serving size, you will see caloric information. These details will be subdivided into total calories and calories from fat.
  • Nutrients you should limit in your diet. These ingredients include saturated fats, trans fats, cholesterol, sodium and carbohydrates. Amounts of each ingredient are provided in grams or milligrams and tend to be highlighted in yellow.
  • Nutrients you should consume enough of in your diet. These ingredients include dietary fibers, sugars, proteins and vitamins such as vitamin A, B, C and D, which are typically highlighted in blue. Additionally, this section lists the amount of calcium, iron and other essential nutrients. Amounts are given in grams, milligrams and percentages.
  • Percent of the daily value. This section is usually a column after each nutrient listed.
  • This section is at the bottom of the nutrition label and explains the percent daily values, which are typically based on a 2,000-calorie diet. However, amounts of some nutrients will be listed in footnotes in grams or milligrams to help you estimate how much you are consuming.

Related Article: How to Create a Balanced Meal

By keeping all this in mind, you will learn how to create well-balanced meals with the correct nutrients and serving sizes.

When to Read Nutrition Labels

You should always read food labels before buying food products from grocery stores or other locations. Understanding how to read nutrition labels helps you determine which foods may be best for your diet, so you are encouraged to do so before consuming any foods. While you should not be preoccupied with reading labels, you should try to read as many labels as possible to ensure your food is safe and healthy. The following list details other situations in which you should review labels on your food:

  • If you are diabetic
  • When you are eating out at restaurants
  • When you are buying food products for yourself and your family
  • When deciding between two food items
  • If you are trying to lose weight
  • If you have digestive issues

Of course, you are always encouraged to read nutrition labels any time you want to check the quality of a packaged food item or beverage.

How to Read Nutrition Labels

The following steps explain how to read nutrition labels by evaluating each section of the label separately:

  1. Determine the serving size. This information may affect how much of the product you will eat. If the serving size on the food label is more than one, consider sharing the food with others or taking leftovers home for later consumption.
  2. Check the calories. While more calories may seem bad, the number of calories in a product does not really affect the quality of the food. However, you should pay attention to the number of calories listed that are from fat. These calories are not as healthy, so you should find food items with fewer calories from fat. Remember, calories are calculated based on a single serving size, so you should adjust the calories if you consume more than one serving.
  3. Look at the nutrients. In the next two food label sections, you should look closely at the percentages indicating how much of the recommended daily value of a nutrient you may be consuming. According to the FDA, a value of five percent or less is considered low while a value of 20 percent or more is high. You are advised to find foods with higher values for healthy nutrients rather than nutrients you should limit in your diet.

When reading food labels, you should try to avoid certain ingredients by eliminating foods with high amounts of them from your diet. For instance, the fats you consume, such as saturated and trans fats, should only consist of about 20 to 35 percent of your total calories. You should also eat less sugar and salt and be weary of food labels that list added sugars (e.g., sucrose, glucose and corn syrup) as the top ingredients.

The Importance of Reading Nutrition Labels

Food packaging may be misleading and only attempt to advertise the product rather than inform you on the nutritional value of it, but nutrition labels are required to tell consumers exactly what ingredients are in packaged food products. Understanding nutrition labels can protect you from consuming all types of dangerous chemicals and food products that may affect your overall health. Food labels can help you limit fats, sugars and cholesterol from your diet as well as increase the amount of healthy nutrients your body receives. You should know how to read food labels to enable you to make smart food choices to help manage health.

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