How to Read Food Labels

Understanding Food Labels to Make Healthy Food Choices

Most foods come with food labels that detail the nutritional values of the food, including things like calories, fat, cholesterol, sodium carbohydrates, protein, and vitamins and minerals. Whether you’re trying to determine if a particular food fits without your weight loss diet plan or seeking out information on the level of iron in a particular food, the nutrition label has important information that you should not ignore. Here is an overview on reading food labels:

 

How to read food labels accurately

This is the information you’ll need to read the dietary guidelines and what is recommended for the average adult[1] (find out about children’s dietary recommendations at KidsHealth.org):

  • Serving size: This section will tell the measurement (in mL, g, oz, and so on) of a serving size, a measurement that is the basis for all of the other nutrition information on the label. Note that most packages contain more than one serving.
  • Calories and calories from fat: This will tell you how many calories there are in a serving and how many of those calories are derived from fat. Obviously, you’d use these two numbers to stay without your recommended daily calorie and fat intake. Your ideal daily calorie count will depend on your age, height, weight, gender, and relative activity level, but you can get a good estimate using this Calorie calculator. Adults should get between 20% and 35% of their calories from fat on a daily basis. Saturated fat should make up no more than 7% of total daily calories, and trans fats no more than 1%. Keep in mind that a low-fat food isn’t necessarily a low calorie food. Read our article on good and bad fats to understand which fats should be avoided. 
  • Carbohydrates: The sugar, starch, and dietary fiber on the label all add up to a total carbohydrate count per serving. Generally adults should get 45% to 65% of their calories from carbohydrates. Getting too many carbs in your diet can lead to health problems including things like heart disease and obesity.
  • Protein: This is the building block that is used by your body to replenish muscle, skin, and other vital tissues and is therefore essential for good health. Daily recommended intake for adults is to get 10% to 35% of calories from protein.
  • Cholesterol: Daily intake of cholesterol should be no more than 300 milligrams daily.
  • Fiber: Fiber is extremely important for good health and so it’s no surprise that adults should eat between 21 and 25 grams of fiber daily. It is very difficult to eat too much fiber, but simple to not eat enough to be sure to eat lots of whole fruits, vegetables, and grains.
  • Sodium: While salt tastes good, too much sodium can be detrimental to your health, and so your sodium intake should remain between 1,500 and 2,300 milligrams per day.
  • Vitamins and minerals: Most nutrition labels will also include measurements of various vitamins and minerals along with the Percent Daily Values which indicates whether a serving provides a relatively small or large portion of the recommended daily intake of that particular nutrient. You should attempt to get 100% of the daily recommended intake of these nutrients.

Most food nutrition labels are administered by governmental agencies that regulate what is required on the label and how it should be formatted. You can find out detailed information about your country’s food nutrition label guides using one of the following sites:

Though the food labelling standards vary from country to country are quite similar, there are subtle differences. And just like the labels, the dietary intake recommendations will be somewhat different if you eat a vegetarian diet, if you’re pregnant or if you are of a particular ethnic origin.

In addition to the basic nutrition labels found on food products, you may also see claims that a food is “low fat” or “cholesterol free” which should provide a quick reference for you as you compare one option to another (here’s a detailed guide on how to read food claims). But there’s nothing more accurate that holding up one nutrition label to another to be sure that you’re selected the most healthful option.

The key to wellbeing is keeping it all in balance - all of the information that you find on the food labels. The Mayo Clinic has these recommendations in order to maintain optimum health regardless of your ethnic background, dietary leaning, or age:

  • Eat a whole food diet with more plant foods and whole grains. 
  • Reduce intake of animal foods, which are also the natural source for cholesterol.
  • Substitute healthy plant fats in place of saturated and trans fats.
  • Limit sweets and salt.
  • Drink alcoholic beverages in moderation, if at all.
  • Control portion sizes and the total number of calories you consume.
  • Include physical activity in your daily routine.





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References

1 Nutrition and healthy eating. (n.d.). Retrieved June 21, 2010, from Mayo Clinic: http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/healthy-diet/nu00200

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