Why you should read food labels carefully

You may associate reading nutrition labels with trying to lose weight, but the truth is, reading food labels is an important practice for everyone. Understanding all the components of a label can be a bit tricky, but once you know what you're looking for, reading labels can and should easily become a daily habit.

"Start off slowly. Pick one nutrient that is important to you, such as fiber or sugar, and start looking at those levels on each packaged food. This will help it become more routine," says Adiana Castro, MS, RDN, CLT, and co-founder of Compass Nutrition in New York, N.Y.

What to look for

The Nutrition Facts label is required to include the serving size and the amount of calories, fat (including saturated and trans fat), cholesterol, sodium, carbohydrates, and protein per serving. It also lists the amount of vitamin A, vitamin C, calcium, and iron, since these nutrients are considered significant to public health, according to the FDA.  

Be sure to read the ingredients list, advises the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Ingredients are listed in order of their weight, so the first few comprise the majority of the food. Reading the ingredients list is essential when you're trying to limit things like sugar or increase your intake of nutrients, such as fiber. Keep in mind that everyone's nutritional needs are different, so consulting with your health care provider, who knows your dietary needs and health issues, is important so you know what to look for.

Check the serving size and the servings per container.
"Reading the serving size and servings per container is the most critical step because it will prevent one from overeating," says Castro. "Most consumers assume a packaged item is a single serving because we are visual eaters. In reality, most packages have at least two servings, and in some, it can be more."

The number of calories is also one of the most important parts of the label to check. "Calories refer to the serving size, NOT the servings per container," Castro says. Because caloric needs differ from person to person based on weight, physical activity, gender, and age, check with your health care provider to find out how many calories you should be eating each day.

The Percent Daily Value (%DV) is based on a 2,000 calorie diet, which is the typical amount needed for an average-size, active child or adult, Castro says. Even though your own caloric needs may be different, the FDA states that the %DV is a good guide because you can get a quick idea of how much of your daily values are being met. A value of 5% or less is considered low, whereas a value of 20% or more is considered high, according to the FDA. Keep in mind that the %DV also applies to one serving.

Also check the %DV for nutrients such as dietary fiber, vitamin A, vitamin C, calcium, protein, and iron. "These nutrients are typically low in the Standard American Diet," says Castro.

Look at the fat. Total fat includes all types of dietary fat; trans fat, saturated fat, monounsaturated fat, and polyunsaturated fat. Because saturated fat and trans fat are unhealthy, the FDA requires that the amount of each is listed on nutrition labels. Calories from fat are calculated by the formula of 1 gram of fat being equal to 9 calories, so if a product serving has 10 grams of fat, the calories from fat for that product will be 90.

Suggested limitations


Reading labels can help you start limiting your intake of ingredients that are unhealthy in large quantities.

  • Limit sodium. “Excessive intake of sodium can increase blood pressure,” Castro says. The American Heart Association recommends a daily sodium intake of 1,500 mg, though most Americans ingest more than double that amount every day.
  • Limit sugar. Too much added sugar can promote overeating and may lead to weight gain. Sugar intake should be limited to 20 grams or less of added sugar, says Castro "This does not include sugar naturally found in food such as fruits and unflavored dairy," she adds.
  • Eliminate trans fat. Trans fat raises your LDL (“bad”) cholesterol and lowers your HDL (“good”) cholesterol, which can lead to cardiovascular damage and heart disease, according to The Mayo Clinic. The label may say there is 0 trans fat, but if “partially hydrogenated oil” is on the ingredient list, then there is still trans fat in the food. “If the serving has less than 0.5 grams of fat (any fat), by law, the manufacturer can state 0 grams,” says Castro.

Other label claims

  • Gluten-free: The FDA says that if the label says a food is gluten-free, that’s exactly what it means.
  • Vegetarian/Vegan: These claims are not regulated by the FDA, so read the ingredient list carefully or consult an independent vegetarian/vegan organization for further information.
  • Organic: There are three levels of organic products according to the USDA: 100% Organic, Organic (95% organic), and Made with Organic Ingredients (at least 70% of the ingredients used are organic). Check for the USDA Organic Seal, which is found on the first two levels.
  • Food allergens: “The law has identified eight major allergens that account for 90 % of all food allergy reactions. These foods include milk, eggs, fish, shellfish, tree nuts, peanuts, wheat, and soybeans,” Castro says. By law, food labels must identify any of these eight allergens used to make any food product.

Look out for changes

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is proposing several changes to food labeling that would include requiring the amount of added sugars, potassium, and vitamin D to be listed; changing the serving size so that a food or drink typically consumed in one sitting would list the nutrition facts as one serving instead of two or more; removing the calories from fat listing; and a new, easier to read design, among other changes. The FDA plans to have any changes approved by the end of 2014, but food companies will have two years to incorporate them.

Click here for a graphic about how to read food labels.

—Sarah E. Ludwig, Tribune Brand Publishing

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