Looking at a food label can be confusing. With so many numbers, letters, buzzwords, and misleading health claims, it can be tough to decipher what’s relevant and what’s not. Fortunately, learning how to read food labels can give you the knowledge and tools to make informed food choices that support your health and your goals. So here’s a step-by-step guide, with pictures, to help you learn how to read a nutrition label.
What is a food label?
Food labels are labels attached to food packaging that carry useful information to help consumers make informed food choices. The front, back, and sides of a food package are filled with information including:
- what the food is
- manufacturer details
- country of origin
- date markings
- product weight and measurements
- cooking and storage instructions
- nutrition information
- health claims
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), Health Canada, and other countries regulatory food agencies, require most packaged foods and beverages, such as bread, cereals, canned and frozen foods, snacks, desserts, drinks, etc., to have a food label, while the labeling of raw fruits, vegetables, fish, and certain egg cartons is voluntary (1)(2)(3).
Why are food labels important?
The information on food labels is designed to help consumers make informed and savvy food choices. Food labels can help consumers make healthier food choices by understanding the nutrient and calorie composition of a food to ensure they are reaching food products that support their personal dietary needs. Food labels can also help to keep consumers safe by providing expiry dates, storage instructions, and cooking instructions, as well as listing common food allergens, such as milk, egg, wheat, shellfish, soy, peanuts, and tree nuts, to help consumers with food allergies avoid foods that they or their families are allergic to. Moreover, the regulations on food labels help to protect consumers from misleading packaging or false health claims.
Parts of a Food Label
The front of the label is the section the consumer sees first. The front-of-package label is part label and part advertisement and should, therefore, be taken with a grain of salt. Food manufacturers can display images, graphics, and symbols that highlight nutritional aspects of the product that are favorable, however, they can leave out unfavorable aspects of the product. For example, a breakfast cereal could highlight that it is “high in fiber” and “heart healthy” on the front-of-package label but leave out the fact that it is also high in sugar. While labeling is closely monitored and regulated, good marketing, health claims, and buzzwords can be misleading to consumers.
2) Ingredients List
The ingredient list is arguably the most valuable part of any food label. The list of ingredients is the only way to determine what the product is made of and if it is made primarily of real food or not, and the list of ingredients gives context to the nutrition facts and calories, as well as the label claims and buzzwords. Ingredients are listed in descending order by weight, including added water. The first ingredient listed is present in the largest amount by weight, and the last ingredient listed is present in the smallest amount by weight. Sub-ingredients are listed in parentheses in ingredient lists. Ingredients that contain 2 or more ingredients are listed in parenthesis from the greatest amount to the least amount (4). For example, pasta (durum wheat flour, egg, water) or cheese (pasteurized milk, culture, salt, enzymes).
3) Nutrition Facts Label
The nutrition facts panel details the number of servings, as well as the calories, macronutrients, and micronutrients per serving of the food. While the ingredients used to make up these nutrition facts are arguably more important than the numbers, the numbers are still very important.
How to Read a Nutrition Facts Label
- Serving Size: The standardized amount of food listed on a product’s Nutrition Facts label. It is used to quantify nutrition data for comparative purposes and allows the consumer to easily compare similar products and different brands. Servings sizes should not necessarily be used as recommended portion sizes; the amount of a food you choose to eat, which may be more or less than a serving size.
- Calories: The number of calories provided by the listed serving size.
- Fat: The number of grams of fat provided by the listed serving size.
- Saturated Fat: The number of grams of the total fat number that are from saturated fat.
- Trans Fat: The number of grams of the total fat number that are from trans fat.
- Carbohydrates: The number of grams of carbohydrates provided by the listed serving size.
- Fiber: The number of grams of the total carbohydrate number that are from dietary fiber.
- Sugar: The number of grams of the total carbohydrate number that are from sugar, including natural and added sugar.
- Added Sugar: The number of grams of the total carbohydrate number that are from added sugar only. This includes granulated sugars, syrup, honey, and sugars from concentrated fruit or vegetable juices.
- Protein: The number of grams of protein provided by the listed serving size.
- % Daily Value: The percent daily value tells you how much a nutrient a serving of food contributes to a daily diet. The percentages are based on the standardized recommendations for general health based on dietary guidelines for a 2,000-calorie diet. Individual daily value requirements may be higher or lower depending on individual calorie needs and, therefore, it is not specific to the reader. The % DV shows how much a nutrient in a serving of food contributes to a 2,000-calorie diet. Generally speaking;
- A food with 5% DV or less of a nutrient per serving is considered low
- A food with 6-19% of a nutrient per serving is considered moderate
- A food with 20% DV or more of a nutrient per serving is considered high
Sodium, vitamin D, calcium, iron, and potassium are the only micronutrients required to be on a food label, food companies can voluntarily list additional vitamins and minerals on a label if desired. It is important to note that vitamins and minerals can also be added as ingredients to food products, in a process known as fortification, therefore, it is imperative that you read the ingredients to determine if they are naturally occurring from whole foods or included in the form of additives in the ingredients list.
Interpreting Calories and Nutrients
Calories are derived from macronutrients (carbs, protein, and fat) and each macronutrient plays a different role in the human body. The calories in a food are determined by the total grams of each macronutrient:
- Fats provide 9 calories per gram
- Proteins provide 4 calories per gram
- Carbohydrates provide 4 calories per gram
Furthermore, the total carbohydrate number listed on food labels includes all three types of carbohydrates; starch, sugar, and fiber. In addition to the total number of grams of carbohydrate, labels also specify the exact amount of fiber and sugar the product contains, which provide the following number of calories:
- Fiber provides 2 calories per gram
- Sugar provides 4 calories per gram
Moreover, in some countries, food manufacturers are required to differentiate between natural sugars and added sugars, which can not only be found on the nutrition facts labels but added sugars can be identified in the ingredients list, which is why they are so important to read.
Tips for Reading Food Labels
Here are some simple tips to help make reading nutrition labels easier.
Pay Attention To:
- Ingredients: Reading the ingredients list is one of the single greatest tools you can add to your nutrition toolkit. Look for ingredient lists that are primarily composed of whole foods and remember that ingredients are listed in descending order by weight.
- Serving Sizes: Note the serving size listed on the Nutrition Facts label. This will allow you to better compare similar products and analyze the portion size you intend to consume.
- Calories per Serving: Take a look at the number of calories provided by the listed serving size. This can help you compare different brands and determine how many calories you will consume based on your portion size. For example, if the serving size of a cereal is 3/4 cup but you intend to consume 1 1/2 cups you can more easily determine the number of calories you will be consuming.
- Number of Serving per Package: Note the number of servings the package contains. Manufacturers are sneaky and often what looks like a single-serving package may actually contain multiple servings and, therefore, be much higher in calories than perceived. For example, a small bag of nuts may contain 100 calories per serving but may actually contain 3 serving per bag making the total bag 300 calories.
Look for More:
- Protein and/or Fiber: Look for products with larger quantities of protein and/fiber. While these macronutrients may not be applicable to all packaged foods, they are particularly beneficial in prepared meals.
- % Daily Value: Use the %DV to quickly compare nutrients in similar products and different brands to look for the most nutrient-dense option.
- Added Sugar: Look for products with less or no added sugar whenever possible. The American Heart Association and CDC recommend that adults limit their intake of added sugar to less than 10% of their total daily calories.
- Trans Fat: While the use of artificial trans fat in the U.S. food supply has mostly been phased out, the consumption of trans fat has been associated with an increased risk of heart disease and should, therefore, be limited.
- Additives and Preservatives: While not all food additives and preservatives are inherently unhealthy or dangerous, salt and water are preservatives overall, it is best to prioritize whole foods and limit hyper-palatable highly-processed foods, which often have excessive or unnecessary ingredients.
The Bottom Line
When it comes to eating healthy, whole food should always be the priority, however, there are plenty of prepared and packaged foods that are incredibly good for you, and understanding how to read food labels can help you make more informed food choices. When reading food labels, ensure that you read the ingredients list and consider the number of servings per package; prioritize whole foods, fiber, protein, vitamins, and minerals; and limit added sugars, trans fat, and unnecessary additives.