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Guide to Reading Food Labels for Health

Food labels are something you can’t ignore, especially if you are aiming for weight management and healthier eating habits. Empower your food choices using these tips to master the art of reading food labels.

Guide to reading food labels 2

There are reasons why people read labels. One reason is to check out the ingredients list to see if the food that they are interested in eating contains ingredients they are allergic to or are prohibited in their religion.

One part of the food label that may seem confusing to many is the Nutrition Facts section. In this article, we shall be discussing the parts of the Nutrition Facts label and how to use the information contained therein to meet your physical fitness goals.

Serving Information

The top section of the Nutrition Facts label contains the serving information. It clearly states the number of servings in the package (also known as “servings per container”). It also states the serving size, which is standardized into familiar units, namely cups or pieces. The serving size, in particular, mentions the amount of the food that people typically eat or drink. It does not recommend how much of the product you should consume.

All the nutrient amounts shown on the label refer to the serving size, which you must pay close attention to. For example, in a food with a serving size of 1 cup, if you eat 2 cups, this means you are eating two servings of the food. Hence, you must multiply by 2 the nutrient values that are written in the label.

Calories

The calories section measures how much energy you can get from a single serving of the food. For example, your food may contain 300 calories in a single serving. If you eat two cups of the food, you are consuming 600 calories.

In order to maintain a healthy body weight, you should balance out the number of calories you eat and drink with the amount of calories your body burns off. The Nutrition Facts label utilizes 2,000 calories a day as the general guide for nutrition advice. Your caloric requirements may be higher or lower and vary depending upon your age, sex, height, weight, and level of physical activity. It is important to remember that the number of servings you eat determines the amount of calories you consume. Eating too many servings and calories may lead to overweight and obesity.

Nutrients

The nutrients section takes up most of the Nutrition Facts label. It presents the key nutrients that have a direct impact on your health.

First, you have the nutrients to get less of, which consists of saturated fat, sodium, and added sugars. These nutrients are associated with adverse health effects, such as cardiovascular disease and high blood pressure. 

You might be wondering about the difference between total sugars and added sugars. Total sugars includes sugars that are naturally present in the food or beverage, such as fructose in fruits and lactose in milk. Added sugars are sugars that are added to foods and beverages during processing. Eating too much of added sugars can make it difficult for you to meet vital nutrient needs while staying within calorie limits.

For example, if the listed total sugar is 15 grams, it includes 5 grams of added sugars. This means that you have 10 grams of naturally occurring sugars, making a total of 15 grams of sugar in all.

Next, you have nutrients to get more of, which includes dietary fiber, vitamin D, calcium, iron, and potassium. These are the nutrients which people don’t get the recommended amount of. It is important to get more dietary fiber to regularize bowel movements, lower blood glucose and cholesterol, and reduce calorie intake. Diets rich in vitamin D, calcium, iron and potassium reduce the risk of anemia, osteoporosis, and high blood pressure.

The Nutrients section is key. It helps you identify nutrients you need more of and those to limit. This section can also introduce you to terms like “gluten-free,” “dairy-free,” “nut-free,” and “vegan,” which can be helpful for dietary restrictions.

A smart shopper checks the ingredient list before making a purchase.

Percent Daily Value (%DV)

You will see two figures in the Nutrients section. Those numbers with units of measurement (ex. grams, milligrams, and micrograms) are your Daily Values while the percentages on the right are your Percent Daily Values or %DV.

The %DV shows how much a nutrient in a single serving of a food contributes to your total daily diet. It also helps to determine whether a serving of food is high or low in that particular nutrient. Last but not least, the %DV is the percentage of the Daily Value for each nutrient in one serving of the food.

Using the %DV is actually simple by just remembering this general guide:

  • 5% DV or less of a nutrient per serving is considered LOW
  • 20% DV or more of a nutrient per serving is considered HIGH

This means there should be 20% DV or more of nutrients such as dietary fiber, vitamin D, calcium, iron and potassium. In contrast, there should be 5% DV or less of saturated fat, sodium, and added sugars. As an example, 850 mg of sodium amounts to a 37% DV, which means you should eat just one serving or less than a serving of the food because of its high sodium content.

Use %DV to compare foods of the same serving size. Choose the foods which contain more of or lower in nutrients that you are watching out for. You can also use %DV to help you distinguish claims made in the label, such as “light”, “low”, or “reduced”. Check the %DV to ensure that these claims are true or not. Last but not least, you can use %DV to make dietary trade-offs. If you are eating a food high in saturated fat right now, trade it off for foods low in saturated fats for the remainder of the day.

Let this handy guide help you in making sense of the food label. This will help you to make wise choices in the foods you buy.

References

  1. FDA. How to Understand and Use the Nutrition Facts Label. [Last accessed March 6, 2024]
  2. Eat Right. The Basics of the Nutrition Facts Label. [Last accessed March 6, 2024]

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