If you’re reading this, I’m guessing you know how to read a food label, but do you know how to pick out what’s actually important on that label? Maybe you know that you should be examining nutrition labels on whatever you’re buying at the store, but you’re honestly kind of overwhelmed when looking at all of the information. Should you be prioritizing calories? Carbs, fats, and protein? % daily values? Let’s cut through some of the confusion. Here’s my perspective on how to look at nutrition facts labels.
Basic Guidelines for Examining Nutrition Labels
Calories Aren’t Everything
You might look to calories first when examining nutrition labels. While this number can be important, it doesn’t tell you much without examining the rest of the information available to you.
Is the Serving Size Your Size?
Even though it’s less prominent than some of the information on the label, it’s beneficial to check out the serving size first. Is the serving size listed really what you’d be eating? If you’d eat more than what’s listed, go ahead and multiply all of the nutrition values on the label. Do these values still fit into your daily nutrition needs? My favorite example of this is ice cream. How many people adhere to the recommended serving size of 1/2 cup? (More on this can be found in my post on the new nutrition facts label.) Conversely, if you’d eat less than what’s listed, can you expect the same nutritional benefits offered by the suggested number of servings?
Look to % Daily Value to Assess How a Food Fits
The % daily value for specific nutrients can help you visualize how a food fits into your daily nutrition needs. Remember, these values are based on a 2,000 calorie diet (you may need more or less) but they are a good place to start when digging into label reading.
A general rule of thumb for % daily values:
- 5% or less is low (aim for this when looking at trans fat, sodium, and cholesterol)
- 20% or more is high (aim for this when looking at fiber, vitamins, and minerals)
Carbs, Fat, and Protein – Read the Fine Print
If you’re trying to hit certain nutrient targets in your diet, it can be helpful to look at how many grams of fat, carbohydrate, and protein is in a food, but we miss some important things if we don’t look at the smaller details.
We know now that the amount of total fat is not what’s most important. Instead, we need to look at the types of fat in our food. A food high in at isn’t necessarily unhealthy if it’s a good source of monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. Under the Total Fat section of the label, be sure to look at saturated fat and trans fat and keep these values low.
Sift Through the Ingredient List
Ingredients are required to be listed in order by weight. For example, a product that has ‘whole grain wheat’ as the first ingredient, contains mostly wheat. Keep in mind that this may not paint the whole picture of how healthy a food is because small amounts of certain nutrients like sodium can still have a big effect on health. Trying to reduce sodium in your diet? Keep in mind that sodium goes by a variety of names on labels. The same goes for sugar.
You may have heard the following advice about nutrition labels; “Stick to foods with 5 ingredients or less,” “Only eat foods with ingredients your grandma would recognize,” or, “Only eat ingredients you can pronounce.” That advice is certainly an okay place to start when making food choices, but strict rules like this can cause us to miss out on a couple of things:
First, many healthy foods have more than 5 ingredients. I can think of a ton of healthy foods that I buy that have more than 5 ingredients. (Ezekiel bread, organic soups, almond milk, fruit/veggie juices with no added sugar, and spice blends are just a few, off the top of my head.)
Second, even though she was a fantastic cook, there are tons of healthy foods we eat today that my grandma would be confused by. (Quinoa? Acai berries? Spirulina? Huh?)
Third, ingredients you can’t pronounce might looks scary at first, I get it. But the next time you’re stumped by an ingredient on the product you’re thinking about buying, whip out your phone for a quick search. You might surprise yourself. (Or, maybe you won’t! Who knows.) For example, ascorbic acid might look like an unnatural chemical at first glance, but it’s really just vitamin c, which keeps us healthy and helps our food maintain its freshness. (Okay, maybe that’s not the coolest answer ever, but watch this little video for some way better ones.)
So now you’re a pro on label reading, but have you heard that the nutrition label might be changing? Here’s a rundown of everything you need to know about it!