A Guide to Reading Food Labels


How To Read the Food Labels Step by Step

The combination of a competitive advertising market and consumer demands for healthier food options has rendered it difficult to decipher your food labels. Although the packaging may claim to be “low sodium” or “all natural,” the only true way to know the value of what you are consuming is by an examination of the food labels, but where should you start?

1.   Start With The Ingredients

The very best food options are going to be found on the outskirts of your grocery store, such as vegetable and fruit stands, canning and freezing from your own garden, and home grown meat, all with minimal packaging and processing.

However, when you venture into the various isles lined with aluminum cans and cardboard boxes, you will find many of your popular food items start to lose their resemblance as food. The ingredients labels are wrought with chemicals and colorings – a seemingly foreign language with words climbing the syllabic ladder.

You will want to purchase food items that contain five or less ingredients that you can actually pronounce! It is important to look for packaged products that are actually made out of food. The first three items listed in the ingredients are what make up the bulk or body of the food item you are looking at. Be sure to check the labels carefully if you are allergy prone. In this consumer update, Felicia Billingslea, Director of Food Labeling talks about what to look for on Food Labels.

2.   Say No to Fake Food! Seven Ingredients that Should be Avoided

1.   Diet foods or sodas
2.   Artificial sweeteners: These include aspartame, Nutrasweet, Equal sucralose (Splenda), sorbitol, and acesulfame-k, to name a few.
3.   High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS)
4.   Flavor enhancers or preservatives: These include maltodextrin, nitrites or nitrates commonly found in processed meats, and MSG.
5.   Artificial flavorings
6.   Added colors 
7.   Unhealthy oils or fats: These include hydrogenated or partially-hydrogenated oils such as vegetable oil or canola oil and margarine.


3.   Calculating Nutritional Value

Once you have determined a food item to be actually made out of food, evaluate the nutritional value of what you are eating. You need to be sure that what you are eating is supplying your body with the proper nutrients dense foods to run efficiently, since eating is foremost a survival action.

When reading a nutritional label, it is important to first note the size of a single serving and the total calories per serving. For example, pop tarts come 2 in a package. The label says 200 calories a serving. That means 200 calories per pastry. – It is easy to open a box of your favorite crackers and consume three servings before a commercial break. Check this nutrition calculator for calories, fats, carbs etc. on three servings of 1 cup of crackers.

It is important to limit the nutrients in the top half of the label. Limit intake of saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol, sugar and sodium. As a general rule it is best to have a percent daily value less than five. A percent daily value of 20 or greater is high. Be sure your product is supplying you with enough fiber, protein and vitamins. Use my fat translator to calculate your personal daily nutrition needs regarding fat intake, and this quick guide from the American Heart Association to calculate your daily values.

4.   Be Wary of Advertising Jargon

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration have strict rules and definitions regarding popular nutrition claims that food advertisements make. Some commonly used content claims and their definitions include:

  • Calorie Free – Less than 5 calories.
  • Sugar Free – Less than .5 grams of sugar.
  • Fat Free – Less than .5 grams of fat.
  • Reduced Fat – At least 25 percent less fat than a regular product.
  • Cholesterol Free – Less than 2 milligrams of cholesterol and 2 grams of saturated fat.
  • Low Sodium – 140 milligrams or less of sodium.

5.   Put Your Products to the Test

When doing your daily shopping take a moment to inspect the labels of the food you are purchasing. Don’t assume that what you see on the box or can is what’s inside. Just because a product claims to be healthy or natural, does not mean you should purchase it. Manufacturers can say whatever they want on the front labels of the food product; Heart Healthy! Low Fat! are just a few. Read the labels on the back. Check to see if the item contains five ingredients or less. While food labels can’t tell you which foods to eat, they can tell you which foods are good for you and taste good. Educate yourself on reading and understanding food labels for a more nutritional and healthier lifestyle.

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