How to Read a Food Label

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When you are walking down the colorful aisles of the supermarket, it can be easy to be distracted by the magically deliciously looking food items that are presented in vibrant packaging, your favorite branding character smiling out at you. Even if you go to shop healthy, shelves-full of different items and brands can overwhelm you, making it challenging to know what to look for when it comes to the healthiest items.

That is why it is important to read food labels.

Food labels list the amount of calories, fat, sodium, sugars, carbohydrates, protein, and vitamins found on the packaging. The food label presents the quantities of each of these based off the serving size.

thServing sizes
are set by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to make it easy to compare similar foods. These values are measured in cups, grams, ounces, tablespoons, or by specific quantity such as one slice of pie, two cookies, 12 pretzels, etc.  It is important to know that the amount of calories and other nutrient amounts will change is you consume more or less of the serving size listed. Listed on the top of the food label is the serving size followed by the servings per container.

One of the most important values, and arguably the number most people look at first, is the calorie value. Calories provide a measure of how much energy you get from a serving. How many calories you need to consumer per day depend on your age, gender, and how active you are. Typically, meals should be anywhere from 500 to 600 calories, whereas snack should be 200 calories or less. Most people should be consuming 1,200-2,000 calories each day.

You will notice that remainder of items on the food label are measured in both amount (grams, milligrams) and percentages. The percent of daily value, or “%DV” is based on a 2,000-calorie diet and helps you see how that specific food’s nutrients fits in with your daily needed nutrients.

Total fat includes both artery-clogging bad fat like saturated and trans fat, and heart healthy fats like polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fat. Your saturated and trans fats will also be listed on their own.

Cholesterol values are listed below the fats. Foods like eggs, cheese, and some junk food are high in cholesterol. Those who are recovering from heart complications such as stroke, high blood pressure, or heart attacks should be mindful of the amount of cholesterol they consume.

Similarly, those with heart problems should watch out for sodium. Sodium can be found in canned soups, salted nuts, and processed deli meats in high amounts.

Total Carbohydrates, both simple and complex, are listed on the food label. Simple (“bad”) carbs are found in white bread and most junk food. Complex carbs (“good”) are found in brown rice, sweet potatoes, wheat bread, and fruits and vegetables.  Fiber and sugar values are listed underneath. The World Health Organization (WHO) recommended that you consume no more than 50 grams of sugar based on a 2,000-calorie diet. The American Heart Associations recommends 6 teaspoons for women and 9 for men per day.

Protein contains 4-calories per gram and it is essential for building muscles and for healthy cells and organs. Protein can be found in meat, chicken, and turkey. Make sure to eat lean cuts that have less calories and fat. Vegetarians can be protein from nuts and beans.

The amount of vitamin and minerals are displayed at the bottom in percentage form.

Tips and Tricks

Photo credit: CDC
Photo credit: CDC

Besides the nutritional values based on serving sizes, food labels also provide a list of the ingredients the package contains. This list can usually be found towards the bottom of any prepackaged food item, sometimes separate from the actual food label. When looking at the ingredient list, the rule of thumb is if you can’t pronounce the ingredient, you don’t eat it.

Just because the front of the label says “all-natural” does not necessarily mean it is. For example, a label could read, “made with real fruit juice,” but could contain only a small percentage of “real” fruit juice and high fructose corn syrup or artificial sweeteners.

High fructose corn syrup (HFCS), a cheaper produced and extremely unhealthy version of sugar (which has been linked to obesity, diabetes, and heart disease), is one of the ingredients that should be avoided. It is commonly found in “junk food” products like chips, soda, candy, desserts, and pretty much everything in between.

Artificial sweeteners are just as dangerous. Artificial sweeteners contain aspartame and sucralose that could cause memory loss, nausea, hives, dizziness, sleep problems, headaches, hallucination, and even cancer. These products are made in the lab and are sweeter than natural sugar, tricking they body so that you barely even notice. These chemicals stimulate the release of insulin and leptin, which tells the body to store fat, which can cause weight gain even when you are drinking a diet soda.

Another ingredient to avoid is monosodium glutamate (MSG), which overexcites cells to damage or death, causing symptoms such as headaches, fatigue, depression, and heart irregularities. MSG is often hidden under these names: autolyzed yeast, yeast extract, gelatin, glutamate, textured protein, and hydrolyzed protein.

While fresh fruits and vegetables do not have food labels, an online search will provide you with the appropriate calories, sugar, and vitamin and mineral content. To tell if a fruit or vegetable is organic or genetically modified, look for the numbers on the PLU code sticker. If the number starts with a 9, the food is organic. If the food starts with a 4, it is conventionally grown. If the food starts with an 8, the food is genetically modified.


Do you read food labels when you are grocery shopping? What matters more to you, calorie count, the amount of sugar, or the amount a fat an item has? What are your favorite healthy brands or items?


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