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How to read food labels

What’s on the Nutrition Facts Label?

woman reading food label

Image source: Thinkstock

When you walk into the supermarket to do your grocery shopping and you start down the aisle, I am sure you will see many claims and terms on packaged food labels.

“Reduced sugar,” “fat free,” “higher in fiber,” and “lite” are just a few of the terms that you will find in supermarkets today.

Let’s decode some of this label lingo and learn how to identify the important points on the nutrition facts label without staying at the supermarket all day.

Serving Size

First and foremost, look at the serving size. Remember that you might eat more or less of that food.

For example, many 20-ounce bottles of sugar-sweetened beverages such as juices and soda still provide values for an 8-ounce serving.

Make your calories count

Look at the calories and the serving size related to those calories. Now look at the other nutrients in the food item. Remember that just because a food is lower in calories does not mean it’s good for you.

Look at where those calories are coming from.  For example, many food labels say “low-fat,” “reduced fat,” or “light.” That does not always mean the food is low in calories. Remember, fat free or sugar free does not mean calorie free. Calories count!

Fats

Total fat includes all the fats in that particular food item. That’s why it is always bold.

Look at the breakdown of fat and make sure it has less saturated fat than the unsaturated fats. Make sure the food does not have trans fats.  These fats will raise your cholesterol quickly.

Tip on decoding fat content

If you see “partially hydrogenated oil”  in the ingredient list, the food item will have trans fats in it, even though the nutrition label states 0 grams of trans fat. Because if a food has less than 0.5 grams trans fat in it, it does not have to be labeled.

Sugar

The Nutrition Facts label does not identify the difference between added sugar and naturally-occurring sugar in a product.   Remember milk will have a naturally-occurring sugar (lactose), but a soda will be all added sugar.

Fiber

The average American eats only 10 to 15 grams of fiber per day. The recommendation for older children, adolescents, and adults is 20 to 35 grams per day.  Make food choices to help you meet your fiber goal for the day.

Sodium

We should all eat no more than 2,400 mg of sodium a day.  That’s about 1 tsp of salt. If you have diabetes, heart disease, or high blood pressure that number goes down.

Here’s a rundown on common sodium claims and what they really mean:

  • Sodium-free or salt-free
    Each serving in this product contains less than 5 mg of sodium.
  • Very low sodium
    Each serving contains 35 mg of sodium or less.
  • Low sodium
    Each serving contains 140 mg of sodium or less.
  • Reduced or less sodium
    The product contains at least 25 percent less sodium than the regular version.
  • Lite or light in sodium
    The sodium content has been reduced by at least 50 percent from the regular version.
  • Unsalted or no salt added
    No salt is added during processing of a food that normally contains salt. However, some foods with these labels may still be high in sodium because some of the ingredients may be high in sodium.

When in doubt, look at the ingredient list. This is a quick way to see what is in the product. Food manufacturers must list all ingredients in descending order by weight. Those in the larges amounts are listed first and then in order by descending weight.

So next time you reach for a can of soup, take a look at the ingredient list. What is the first ingredient, the second, and third?

Do you have more questions?  Ask for a referral or make an appointment with a registered dietitian.