The 8 Big Things You Should Read on Every Food Label

By Alyssa Kessel, RDN, LD, Expert Dietitian

As the health and fitness industry continues to grow, people are becoming a lot more aware of their food and what’s in them. I’ve heard it from my own patients that they are spending more and more time in the grocery aisle trying to decode food labels to see if their top food choices are really as healthy as the packaging seems to indicate.

If this sounds like you and you want the healthiest food options, don’t fret. I’m here today to breakdown the 8 big things you should look for in food labels:

  • Serving sizes
  • Carbohydrate count
  • Added sugar
  • Total fat
  • Protein
  • Sodium
  • Daily value %
  • Ingredients list

Serving Sizes

The first thing you should look at is the serving size. This will tell you how many ounces or cups are in the package. Remember, if there is more than one serving, you will have to double the nutrients and calories in the food.

In some good news, the new food label will have the calorie count in a bigger, bolder font. This will make it easier to see exactly how many calories there are per serving.

food label comparison

Carbohydrate count

Whether you’re counting carbs or not, they are still an important part of your diet. You should always know what kind of carbs are in your food and where they’re coming from. Remember from my previous blog on dietary fiber that I recommend choosing foods that have at least 5 grams of fiber to help you get that 25 grams of fiber a day that your body needs.

Added sugar

A new category on our food label is the added sugars (listed above on the right label, under Total Carbohydrates). This section will show you the amount of sugar that are added to that particular food during processing. These include things like:

  • High fructose corn syrup
  • Corn syrup
  • Sucrose
  • Fructose
  • Glucose

While they may help add flavor, be careful on how much is in each serving. It quickly adds up!

Total fat

The next thing you should look at is the total fat in your foods. Like the rest of the food label, this will be listed in the amount per serving. You will also want to look at the type of dietary fat that’s in the food.

I recommend avoiding foods that are high in trans fats and saturated fats because these two fats are going to be what raises your risk for cardiovascular disease. Instead, look for foods that are high in UNsaturated fats (polyunsaturated or monounsaturated fats). These are known to be heart healthy and can lower your risk for cardiovascular disease.

Protein

Looking at the protein content of the food will help you determine if it’s an adequate amount of protein for your lifestyle. Protein builds your lean muscle mass and keeps you feeling full between meals.

If you need a snack throughout the day, I recommend eating one that has 10-15 grams of protein per serving. Meals themselves should have 20-25 grams per serving.

Sodium

Did you know that over 70% of the sodium that you eat comes from packaged and processed foods, not from the salt shaker at home?

It’s true. To lower your sodium intake, it’s best to stay away from (or at least eat less) processed and packaged foods. The American Heart Association recommends that you consume less than 2,300 milligrams of sodium per day. This means you should be eating less than 600 milligrams of sodium per serving.

Daily value %

At the bottom of the new food label, you’ll find the “% daily value”. This is based on a 2,000 calorie diet and tells you what percentage of those nutrients are in that food.

If you’re not following a 2,000 calorie diet – whether you’re eating more or less than that – then those percentages may not be helpful to you. But it can still help inform you if a food is low or high in that particular nutrient.

Generally, if a food has less than 5%, it’s considered to be low in that nutrient. If it has more than 20%, it’s considered to be high.

Ingredients list

An important part of the food label that is often overlooked are the ingredients. Be sure to check these out to see exactly what your food is made up of.  They will be listed from highest quantities to the lowest. Try to choose foods that have whole foods listed as the first three ingredients versus those ingredients you can’t pronounce. Trust me, I stay away from the ones I can’t pronounce either!

You should also be wary of the nutrient claims on the package, especially if they aren’t backed up by proof on the food label. It’s easy to see these health claims and believe they’re a healthy choice. But it could just be a marketing scheme from the manufacturer to get you to purchase their products.

There’s research to show that consumers tend to buy products that have health claims compared to competitors that don’t use those labels.

Labels to watch out for include:

  • Sugar-free or low-sugar
  • Salt-free of no added salt
  • Low-fat
  • Organic
  • Clean
  • “Skinny”

Again, these nutrition claims don’t necessarily mean that the food is a healthy choice. If you’re trying to eat healthy, be aware of these nutritional claims and examine the food label and ingredients list to see how truthful they are.

More information

In my next vlog, I’ll be sharing more information about those nutrient claims and advertisements and what they really mean. In the meantime, you can read my other weight loss blogs, or you can subscribe to our YouTube channel for more health, wellness, and beauty tips.

nutrition label

Click to enlarge. Credit: Insight Report.

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