› Food Labels

How to Read Food Labels

Learning how to read food labels will go a long way to help you develop your healthy eating lifestyle. 

Understanding the labels and interpreting the information will help you make sensible food selections at the grocery store and ensure you get the nutritional values you need.

With food labels, you can clearly understand the amount and kinds of nutrients that are provided in the item.

Usually, it contains the information on calories, saturated fat, sodium, total fat, fiber, protein and cholesterol amounts “per serving.”

However, understanding and reading these labels can be very perplexing.

A typical consumer would definitely ask what those numbers mean and how it will affect their weight loss plan and healthy lifestyle. 

The Food Level Breakdown

In order to have a clearer and more comprehensive understanding of the items stated in the Nutrition Facts on the food label, here is a list of things that you need to know:

food labels

1.  Serving Size / Number of Servings

2.  Calories / Calories from Fat

3.  % Daily Value

4.  Nutrients to limit

5.  Nutrients to get enough of

6.  Footnote

You also want to check out the ingredients and have a better understanding of the claims made on labels such as "low fat" or "low calorie" claims.

These claims are generally on front of the package and are used to catch your attention.  To review the section of the food label you want, just click on the links above or scroll through the page.

Number of Servings/ Servings per Container

This is the first thing you want to look at on the label.  Check out the serving size and the number of servings in the package.

The serving size will be shown in standardized measurements such as cups or pieces followed by the metric amount. 

The amount of servings stated in the food label refers to the quantity of food people usually consume. However, this does not necessarily mean that it reflects your very own amount of food intake. 

The nutritional information is based on a single serving so be sure to increase or decrease this information based on the number of servings you have. 

For instance, if the serving size says one serving size is equal to 1 cup and you eat just ½ cup, then you would only take in ½ of the nutrients listed on the label. 

If the label states 2 servings per container and you eat the whole package then you have consumed 2 servings. 

This means you need to double the nutritional values to determine how many calories, fat calories, etc. you consumed.

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Calories and Calories from Fat

Calories are a unit of energy so the calories on food labels represent the amount of energy you get from this food item. 

food labels caloriesIf you are trying to lose weight and are counting calories, then this portion of the label is extremely important to ensure you do not consume too many calories.

It is also useful to ensure you do not get too few calories while on your weight loss plan. 

Remember the number of calories is per one serving.  In this food label example there are 250 calories per 1 serving and there are 2 servings per box.  So if you ate the whole box you would be consuming 500 calories. 

The calories from fat are also critical while trying to lose weight.  You want to minimize your fat intake as much as possible when on a weight loss program.  So if a food label shows 250 total calories and 110 calories from fat, this food item would have almost ½ of the calories coming from fat.

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%Daily Values(%DV)

This is perhaps one of the more confusing parts of food labels. The %DV is based on the daily recommended values for a particular nutrient based on a 2,000 a day calorie intake. The percent helps you judge if a food item is high or low in a nutrient like total fat, dietary fiber, etc.

food labels % Daily ValuesThe percentages do not add up to a total of 100% for that food item. Instead the percent shown is representative of that particular nutrient and how much that food item will supply you with the recommended daily amount for that nutrient.

For instance, the example food label shows 12% total fat. This means eating one serving of this food item uses up 18% of the total 100% of the recommended fat intake for the day.

Even if your daily calorie intake is less than or more than the 2,000 a day that these percentages are based on, you can still use these percentages to ensure you are getting enough of a particular nutrient.

Likewise it can help you to minimize those nutrients you want to be careful not to exceed your daily limits.

Understanding the % Daily Values will help you make better selections at the grocery store and not fall into the “sales pitch” of certain food items.

For instance, if an item says “reduced fat” you can compare the %DV of two like products to see exactly which one is lower in fat. Just make sure the serving sizes are similar for the comparison.

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Nutrients to Limit

When reading the food labels watch for the total fat (saturated and trans fat), cholesterol and sodium content. 

These are the first nutrients listed on the labels and are generally the nutrients we get an adequate amount of and often times too much of. 

You want to try and limit these nutrients and ensure you do not go over the daily recommended amounts. 

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Nutrients You Want

The nutrients you want to ensure you get enough of include dietary fiber, Vitamin A & C, Calcium and Iron. 

Generally people do not always get the recommended daily amount of these nutrients. 

Eating the right amount of these nutrients can improve your health and minimize certain medical risks.  Calcium intake is important for the strength of your bones and dietary fiber helps with the bowel function. 

Diets high in fruits and veggies, which are high in vitamins and dietary fiber, may reduce the risk of heart disease. 

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Understanding the Foot Notes

On the food label, the footnote that starts with the “*” is in reference to the % Daily Values listed above the footnote. 

food labels footerThis is required on all food labels but the remaining portion of the footnote is not required and may not be on the package. 

When the full footnote is shown it will always be the same.  This footnote is the recommended dietary advice for all Americans and not specific to that food item.

This footnote on the food label will show the recommended amounts for both a 2,000 a day calorie diet and a 2,500 a day calorie diet.  As you can see from the footnote, the daily recommended amount for total fat is 65g for a 2,000 calorie intake and 80g for 2,500.  

Upper Limits

The nutrients that list the upper daily limits are listed first and have “less than” associated with the calories column.  This means your goal should be to consume less than the upper limit daily recommended amount.

Lower Limits

The nutrients that list the lower or minimum daily limits are listed last.  The goal for these nutrients is to consume at least the recommended daily allowance amounts shown.

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As you begin to read food labels you will also want to check out the list of ingredients.  This will be located on the package but may not be located near or around the nutrition label.  Things to watch for in the ingredients are processed foods such as white flour, sugar, etc. 

The listing is arranged from the main ingredients that have the greater amount by weight up to the smallest quantity. This simply means that the actual quantity of the food includes the biggest quantity of the main ingredient or the first item and the minimum amount of the very last ingredient.

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Label Claims

This refers to the kinds of nutritional claims of a particular food item. For instance, if an item says it is sodium-free, it has less than 5 milligrams per serving or a low fat item actually contains 3 grams of fat or less. 

To see the specifics on what claims a product can make based on the nutritional value read this article from diabetes.org on food labels - nutrient content claims.  

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