Imagine you’re in the grocery store, and a package of something catches your eye.
Maybe it’s a new brand of a product you use regularly or a delicious-looking new product from a brand you like. Maybe it’s an ingredient for a recipe you want to try that you’ve never purchased before. Maybe your child just ran up and waved it in front of you asking you to buy it.
But before you put it in your cart, you want to know a little more about it. Is it healthy? Does it fit into your plant-based or gluten-free or whole food eating pattern?
You shouldn’t need an advanced degree in nutrition to make informed choices about what goes onto your plate, but nutrition labels can be downright overwhelming.
They contain all the information you need to decide if a food meets your nutritional standards and fits into your lifestyle. It just takes a little bit of know-how in order to interpret that information into something useful.
So here is a dietitian’s complete guide to reading a nutrition label like a pro.
The first place I usually look when evaluating a food, beverage, or supplement is the ingredient list. I use this to determine if it meets my standards for a healthy food based on quality of ingredients and level of processing.
I usually ask myself 3 questions about the ingredient list:
1) What are the ingredients?
Are they whole foods? Are they healthy foods?
Perhaps there are certain ingredients you are trying to avoid, whether it’s due to an allergy or intolerance or you’re just trying to eat less refined grains. This is where you will look to determine if the food you are considering contains one or more of those ingredients.
Since I like to eat mostly whole grains if I can, I look for the word “whole” before any grain products, like “whole wheat flour.” If it just says “wheat flour”, it’s not a whole grain product. There are some exceptions to this rule, namely things that are inherently whole grains, like bulgar (cracked) wheat or brown rice.
Sugar by any other name is still sugar. And if you are trying to avoid it, you’ll be on the lookout for any listed sugars, syrups, honeys, nectars, malts, words that end in “ose” or “saccharide.”
Sometimes the names can be deliberately tricky. One of my personal favorites is “evaporated cane juice.” (1) There are countless others, but don’t get too stressed about this or feel like you need to memorize all these names.
A much easier way to check the sugar content of a food is on the nutrition facts label, where you’ll find the amounts of total and added sugars neatly listed for you. We’ll discuss this in more detail further on.
If any of the ingredients are hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated fats or oils, put it back and step away. These are also known as trans fats and they are universally acknowledged to be terrible for you.
Seeing them on labels is becoming less and less common as the FDA has banned their use in food manufacturing. They have largely been phased out by now, but a few products may still be working their way through distribution networks until January, 2021. So it doesn’t hurt to check for them as you are scanning the ingredient list. (2)
2) What order are they in?
Ingredients are listed in descending order by weight. So if an ingredient you don’t consider healthy, like sugar or salt, is toward the beginning of the list that should be a red flag. If it’s near the end there is a smaller amount.
You can use this information to decide whether the product meets your personal standards. If you want to know exactly how much of a specific nutrient is in the food, you’ll find that out when you move on to the nutrition facts label.
The ingredients list simply tells you how much there is of each ingredient relative to each other.
3) How many of them are there?
Long ingredient lists or lists with lots of additives (like preservatives, emulsifiers, thickeners, or artificial colors – you can see an extensive list of them on the FDA’s website here: https://www.fda.gov/food/food-ingredients-packaging/overview-food-ingredients-additives-colors) are suggestive that the product is highly processed.
This is something I like to pay attention to so that I can avoid eating too many highly processed foods.
The Nutrition Facts Panel
Once you’ve approved of the ingredient list, it’s time to get a little more technical. There are 4 key elements on the nutrition facts panel that you’ll need to be able to interpret to understand the nutritional makeup of the product: serving size, calories, nutrients, and percent Daily Value (% DV.)
1) Serving Size
Serving size is arguably the most important piece of information because all the other information on the panel is qualified by it. For example, if the serving size is 1 cup and you eat 2 cups of the food, you have to multiply every value on the label by 2 to know how much of each nutrient you consumed.
Nutrition labels can sometimes be misleading by setting the serving size as an unrealistically small amount.
At first glance, it may appear that the food is low in calories, carbohydrates, fat, sodium, etc. Then, when as a normal human being, you eat a much larger serving size than what is on the label, you actually consume many more calories, carbohydrates, fat, sodium, etc. than you realize, unless you remembered to do the math when you read the label.
Some products are now required to have a dual column label which gives you all the information for 1 serving and also for the entire package. This is very useful, but don’t put away those calculators just yet. There will still be plenty of times when what you are consuming doesn’t equal exactly 1 serving or the entire package, or when the product you’re eating or cooking with doesn’t have that handy dual label.
The number of calories on the label is a measure of the total amount of energy (from carbohydrates, fats, proteins, and/or alcohol) in one serving of the food or beverage. A person’s daily calorie needs vary depending on factors such as age, sex, height, weight, and activity level.
So an appropriate number of calories in an individual food or meal will be different for different people. But as a general rule of thumb, if an individually packaged food contains 100 calories per serving it is considered a moderate calorie food, and if it contains 400 or more it is considered high-calorie. High-calorie foods aren’t inherently bad for you – it just depends on a case-by-case basis whether or not they fit into your overall daily energy needs. (3)
After calories, moving down the left-hand side of the label we see a list of important nutrients contained in the product.
Some of these are required to be listed by law while others may appear or not according to the manufacturer’s discretion. For example, if that particular food happens to be high in vitamin A but contains virtually no zinc, the manufacturer will likely list vitamin A on the label but not zinc.
You may be more focused on some of the listed nutrients over others. We all need different amounts of various nutrients based on our individual requirements or personal nutritional goals, but there are a few nutrients that we all generally should limit and a few others that we all generally want to make sure we are getting enough of.
Nutrients we all generally want to limit include: saturated fat, sodium, added sugars. Many Americans get more than the recommended amounts of these.
*A quick note on added sugar vs total sugar: added sugars are those added to the product by the manufacturer in the form of one (or more) of those many names we discussed earlier. Total sugar includes those added sugars and any sugar that is naturally occurring in the food already (i.e. that was not “added”). It is pretty well established that added sugars are not great for us and are therefore something we can all stand to limit in our diets. Total sugar, because it includes those naturally occurring sugars found in whole foods, is a more complicated story.
Nutrients we all want to make sure we are getting enough of include: dietary fiber, vitamin D, calcium, iron, and potassium. Many Americans get less than the recommended amounts of these. (4)
4) Percent Daily Value (% DV)
The Daily Value (DV) is an amount of any given nutrient that it is recommended to consume (or not to exceed in some cases) each day.
These values are set by the FDA and are updated according to current research.
The Percent Daily Value (% DV) is the percentage of the DV for that nutrient in one serving of that product. For example, if a nutrition facts label states that it contains 10% of the DV for iron in one serving, then eating one serving of that food will give you 10% of the recommended amount of iron you should have for the day.
There are actually different DVs for adults, children, infants, and pregnant or lactating women. Most food labels will use the adult DV unless it is a supplement, food, or formula intended for pregnant or lactating women, infants, or young children specifically. If you are curious what those values are, you can find them here: https://www.dsld.nlm.nih.gov/dsld/dailyvalue.jsp
The adult DVs are based on a 2000 calorie diet and a recommended distribution of protein, carbohydrates, fats, etc.
Of course, a 2,000 calorie diet is not appropriate for everyone. It may be too much energy for some and too little for others.
Individuals may have different goals for their intake of protein, carbohydrates, and fats that don’t line up perfectly with the distribution calculated for the DVs.
The DV for fiber is 28 grams, which may be far too little for some people and a bit much for others. A person could have elevated requirements for certain vitamins or minerals for a variety of reasons. You get the point.
The % DVs on a nutrition facts label aren’t that useful as a monitoring system for your daily intake of nutrients unless your individual needs happen to fall perfectly in line with the DVs. Many people’s don’t, and that is okay.
What the % DVs are useful for is determining if a food is considered high or low in a certain nutrient, comparing foods, and evaluating claims that may be listed elsewhere on the package.
As a general rule of thumb, 5% DV or less is considered low, while 20% DV or more is considered high. So a food that contains 4% DV of sodium per serving could be considered low in sodium.
If you’re trying to limit your sodium intake, this would be good news to you. A food that contains 25% DV of calcium per serving is high in calcium. So if you are trying to get more calcium in your diet, this is a food that could help you achieve that. (5)
You can use the % DVs to compare two foods that you may be deciding between.
Let’s say you are choosing between two breakfast cereals and you want one that is higher in iron. One has 30% DV of iron, while the other has 10%. If the serving sizes are the same, then the first cereal is higher in iron, so you will probably choose that one.
Perhaps you’re more interested in increasing your fiber intake, so you’ll choose a cereal with 18% DV dietary fiber per ¾ cup serving over one with 9% DV dietary fiber per ¾ cup serving. If the serving sizes are different, you may need to pull out that calculator again.
Packaged foods often tout claims like “low carbohydrate” or “reduced fat.” But what does “low” mean? Sometimes the accepted definitions of these terms can be very vague. But if you know how to evaluate foods using % DV, you can decide if the food meets your definition of those terms.
Perhaps a condiment you are considering is called “reduced fat” by the manufacturer, but it still contains 15% DV of total fat per serving. Maybe that is still a bit high for your comfort, or maybe it’s totally fine. Maybe the manufacturer replaced the fat with a bunch of added sugar and now the sugar content is higher than you are comfortable with. The point is, it’s up to you to decide, and you can use the % DV as a tool to help you make an informed decision.
Potentially Misleading Claims on Nutrition Labels
There are dozens of different health or nutritional claims that manufacturers put on food packaging to entice you to purchase their products. Some are clearly defined and regulated, while others are less so. Again, there is no need to stress or memorize.
If you see a claim on a package, all you need to do is examine the nutrition facts label and ingredients list to find out for yourself what the nutrient content is or whether it contains ingredients you consider healthy or acceptable.
Since you know how to evaluate a product for yourself, you don’t need to rely on the manufacturer’s potentially misleading claims. But just so you are prepared, here a few examples of what you might see and what they might mean:
High or Low
For a manufacturer to claim that their product is “high,” “low” or “a good source of” a certain nutrient, they need to meet specific criteria (depending on the nutrient.) For example, if a low sodium claim is made, the product must have 140 mg or less of sodium per serving.
“High fiber” or an “excellent source of fiber” means 20% of more DV fiber per serving, while a “good source of fiber can be between 10-19% DV. You can find a nice list of claims and their criteria at https://www.heart.org/en/healthy-living/healthy-eating/eat-smart/nutrition-basics/food-packaging-claims.
Light or Reduced
This simply means that the nutrient in question (usually calories, fat, sodium, or sugar) is lower than in the original version. It needs to be 25% lower to be called “reduced,” and 50% less fat or 1/3 fewer calories to be called “light” or “lite.” (6)
There is currently no formal definition of the term “natural” in regards to its use in food labeling.
The FDA considers the term to mean that nothing artificial or synthetic (including color) has been added to the product, but does not address food production or processing methods in its policy, nor does it consider the term “natural” to indicate any nutritional or health benefit. (7) In other words, the definition is loose, vague and at this point, there are few clear regulations governing the use of the term “natural.”
So taking it for what it’s worth, it’s not worth much.
In contrast, the term organic is much more explicitly defined and tightly regulated by the government.
A food that is USDA-certified organic has been grown or raised according to guidelines that prohibit the use of most synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, antibiotics, and hormones, as well as govern various other aspects of agricultural practice.
For processed, multi-ingredient foods to qualify as certified USDA organic, they cannot include artificial preservatives, colors, or flavorings and they must be made with organic, non-genetically modified ingredients. (8)
Products labeled as organic and which contain the USDA organic seal must contain at least 95% organic ingredients. Products with at least 70% (but less than 95%) organic ingredients will be labeled as “made with” organic ingredients and will not contain the seal. (9)
Made With Whole Grains
This means that the product contains some whole grain ingredient(s). It doesn’t imply anything about proportion or quantity.
You’ll want to check the ingredients list to see if the whole grains are among the first listed ingredients, or if they are way at the bottom of the list.
You can also check the fiber content on the nutrition facts panel. Part of the reason whole grains are good for you is because they contain fiber. So a whole-grain food should have a decent amount of fiber per serving.
Gluten-free means that the product doesn’t contain wheat, spelt, barley, or rye.
Vegan means that it doesn’t contain animal products.
It means that people who follow a gluten-free or vegan diet can eat those foods. That’s all. It doesn’t mean that they are inherently healthy.
Gluten-free or vegan packaged foods can be highly processed and contain unhealthy ingredients just like any other packaged food. So you still need to read the ingredients list and the nutrition facts panel.
Fortified or Enriched
These foods have nutrients (usually vitamins and minerals) added to them. Enriched means that nutrients lost during processing were added back afterward, such as B vitamins to refined wheat flour. Fortified means that nutrients were added that were not there originally, such as vitamin D to milk or iodine to salt.
If you want to know how much of said nutrient you are getting, you’ll have to check out the nutrition facts panel.
Zero Trans Fat
This can be a tricky one. Trans fats are banned now anyway, so you might be tempted to roll your eyes at a manufacturer bragging about simply following the law, but remember that there are still a few trans fats floating around out there until January 2021.
And what you may not know is that technically, if a product contains less than 0.5 g of trans fats per serving, they are allowed to round it down to 0 g on the label. So make sure to scan that ingredient list for hydrogenated oils. (9)
Whatever your personal nutritional goals happen to be, you can use the information on nutrition labels to decide if a particular food will help you achieve those goals. Don’t be lured in by flashy claims. Use the ingredients list and nutrition facts panel to decide if a product meets YOUR standards.