Food labels are an extremely important tool when trying to make healthier diet decisions. However, many people are confused about what to look for when reading them. Just because products look healthy or call themselves a healthy choice doesn’t mean they are the best thing for you. Understanding the right things to pay attention to can help you make healthier decisions based on facts rather than marketing.
Depending on your dietary needs, you may pay more attention to some parts of a food label over others. In general, you can break current food labels down into six parts:
- Serving size – This is the very first thing you should look at, since serving sizes vary greatly among the different food choices. The serving size doesn’t necessarily mean what is the right serving for you, but instead functions as your reference point when reviewing the rest of the nutritional information on the label.
- Calories – Double-check how many servings you’re really consuming. If you eat double the serving size, you need to double the calorie and nutrient counts.
- Things to minimize – Saturated fat, trans fat and sodium are typically things you should try to minimize per serving. This section is a little bit tricky because there are different kinds of fat. Some are good for your heart and we should make sure to get enough of the healthy fats in our diet. Some fats, such as saturated and trans fats, are bad for your heart and we should try to have smaller amounts of these. Knowing which types of fat are which and what’s best for you is a topic that a dietitian can help you understand.
- Nutrients we need – You should strive to get all of the fiber, vitamins and other nutrients you need each day.
- Percent of daily values – For example, saturated fat and sodium daily value is based on the most we should get in our diet each day. For nutrients many Americans don’t get enough of, such as fiber, the percent is the minimum amount we should eat.
- Quick guide to percent of daily values – This helps you understand the percentage of each nutrient in a single serving compared to the daily recommended amount. Some daily values are based on a 2,000-calorie diet.
You may have noticed there are three rows that are not color coded – total carbohydrate, sugars and proteins. These can be even trickier than the types of fat. It may really depend on your individual situation what you want to look out for here.
It’s not only good to look at the numbers, but it’s also important to skim the ingredients list to see where the nutrients are coming from. For instance, if you’re trying to choose more whole grain foods, the numbers won’t tell you what you need to know. Instead, you would look to see if the first ingredient listed is a whole grain.
In the big picture, the nutrition facts labels are most helpful for the nutrients we are limiting. But for the ones we need to get more of, such as fiber, vitamins and minerals, the labels are not really necessary. We will almost certainly get enough of the good stuff if we follow the three simple guidelines: choosing lean proteins, making at least half our grains choices whole grains, and filling up half our plates with a variety of fruits and vegetables.
It’s important to remember to choose foods that support a healthy diet based on your individual needs. For example, paying attention to carbohydrates can be important for individuals with blood sugar issues and diabetes. Sodium and cholesterol content are also important factors to review on food labels, especially for individuals with high blood pressure, high cholesterol or heart disease.
Making the right food choices and maintaining a healthy diet can often be an overwhelming process. Fortunately, the exceptional team of registered dietitians at Cone Health Nutrition and Diabetes Education Services are dedicated to educating individuals and families about reading food labels, making the right choices and controlling portions to get them on track to healthier lifestyles.
Angela Johnston, RD, LDN, is a registered dietitian at Cone Health Nutrition and Diabetes Education Services. Johnston received a Bachelor of Science in biology from Southern Utah University in 2006 and a bachelor’s degree in dietetics and clinical nutrition services from North Carolina Central University in 2014. She completed a dietetic internship with Meredith College in 2016.