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Reading Food Labels

Reading Food Labels

Reading Well… It’s All In The Fine Print

We’ve all heard the term, “You are what you eat,” but how often do we really stop and think about what we put in our bodies? The fact is most of us know frighteningly little about what’s in the foods we eat, or, let alone, how much of each nutrient we actually need.

With just a little bit of effort, we can become a lot smarter when it comes to understanding what’s in the foods we eat. How, you ask? By reading food labels. Food labels are on almost every food item we purchase, and even though you may never have looked at one closely, they’re actually fairly simple to understand and packed with valuable information.

The rest of this brochure will explain how you can quickly and easily read a food label—which will enable you to understand not only what’s in the foods you eat, but also how you can make adjustments to your diet to live a longer, healthier life. Remember, you are what you eat, so make it healthy!

Coming To Terms… Label, Label On The Jar

You are what you eat. So it pays to make wise choices about the foods you consume. Get the facts on reading food labels.

Here are some quick definitions for the terms you’ll find on food labels.

  • An additive is a substance added to make foods taste better, or last longer
  • Calcium is a vital component of bones and teeth and is needed for proper nerve function
  • Calories and kilojoules are units of energy
  • Carbohydrates are found in grain-based foods and fruits and vegetables. Our bodies use “carbs” as a main source of energy
  • Cholesterol is found in animal products. Too much cholesterol in the diet can be unhealthy for the heart
  • Enriched or fortified means that nutrients have been added to the food
  • Fiber is the indigestible part of grains, fruits, and vegetables
  • Glucose, fructose, sucrose, and lactose are all sugars
  • Protein is important for muscle growth and repair
  • Sodium is needed for proper fluid balance and nerve function, but too much is unhealthy
  • Total fat is the measure of fat content in food—both saturated and unsaturated.
  • Unsaturated fats are healthier than saturated fats, but should still be eaten in moderation

Food Labels: Read The Writing On The Jar

Although we’ve come a long way from the nineteenth century’s traveling medicine shows selling miracle cures like Dr. Kilmer’s Swamp Root or rattlesnake oil, today’s marketing claims can be very confusing and even misleading.

Buyer Beware

Walking through any grocery store, you’ll find all sorts of claims made by food marketers. You’ll see “fat-free,” “low-sodium,” “light,” “nutritious,” and a whole host of other buzzwords. Remember, it’s buyer beware—not all these buzzwords mean exactly what they say, and the labels demand closer inspection. Be sure the “Nutrition Facts” label supports these claims.

The Buzzword Bible

Next time you’re navigating the grocery aisles, the following definitions may help you shop wiser and healthier.

  • “Calorie-Free” - Fewer than 5 calories per serving.
  • “Fat-Free” — Less than 1/2 of a gram of fat per serving.
  • “Light” — Must contain 1/3 less calories than the regular version of the same product.
  • “Low-Fat” — No more than 3 grams of fat per serving.
  • “Low in Saturated Fat”— No more than 1 gram of saturated fat per serving.
  • “Low in Sodium” — No more than 140 milligrams of salt per serving.
  • “Very Low in Sodium” — No more than 35 milligrams of salt per serving.
  • “Low in Cholesterol” — No more than 20 milligrams of cholesterol or 2 grams of saturated fat per serving.

Reading & Understanding The Nutrition Facts Label

Food labels are on practically every food item we buy and eat. And for good reason, too. Reading food labels is one of the most important steps you can take to eating well and living healthy.

Food labels provide important information about the food you’re eating—serving sizes, calories, fat, important nutrients, as well as salt, sugar, and cholesterol. Because of the amount of information packed on food labels, it may seem a little overwhelming at first. But not to worry, the following information will help you read and understand the Nutrition Facts labels on the food you consume. Here’s what you should look for on the Nutrition Facts label.

1. Check the serving size and number of servings.

  • The Nutrition Facts label information is based on ONE serving, but many packages contain more. Look at the serving size and how many servings you are actually consuming. If you double the servings you eat, you double the calories and nutrients.
  • When you compare calories and nutrients between brands, check to see if the serving size is the same.

2. Calories count, so pay attention to the amount.

  • This is where you’ll find the number of calories per serving and the calories from fat in each serving.
  • Fat-free doesn’t mean calorie-free. Lower fat items may have as many calories as full-fat versions.
  • If the label lists that 1 serving equals 3 cookies and 100 calories, and you eat 6 cookies, you’ve eaten 2 servings, or twice the number of calories and fat.

3. Look for foods that are rich in these nutrients.

  • Use the label not only to limit fat and sodium, but also to increase nutrients that promote good health and may protect you from disease.
  • Some Americans don’t get enough vitamin A and C, potassium, calcium, and iron, so choose the brand with the higher % Daily Value for these nutrients.
  • Get the most nutrition for your calories—compare the calories to the nutrients you would be getting to make a healthier food choice.

4. The % Daily Value is a key to a balanced diet.

The % Daily Value is a general guide to help you link nutrients in a serving of food to their contribution to your total daily diet. It can help you determine if a food is high or low in a nutrient—5% or less is low, 20% or more is high. You can use the % Daily Value to make dietary trade-offs with other foods throughout the day. The * is a reminder that the % Daily Value is based on a 2,000-calorie diet. You may need more or less, but the % Daily Value is still a helpful gauge.

5. Know your fats and reduce sodium for your health.

  • To help reduce your risk of heart disease, use the label to select foods that are lowest in saturated fat, total fat and cholesterol.
  • Trans fat doesn’t have a % Daily Value, but because of the harmful effects you should avoid trans fats at all costs.
  • The % Daily Value for total fat includes saturated and trans fats.
  • To help lower blood cholesterol, replace saturated and trans fats with monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats found in fish, nuts, and liquid vegetable oils.
  • Limit sodium to help reduce your risk of high blood pressure.

6. Reach for healthy, wholesome carbohydrates.

  • Fiber and sugars are types of carbohydrates. Healthy sources, like fruits, vegetables, beans, and whole grains, can reduce the risk of heart disease and improve digestive functioning.
  • Whole grain foods can’t always be identified by color or name, such as multi-grain or wheat. Look for the “whole” grain listed first in the ingredient list, such as whole wheat, brown rice, or whole oats.
  • There isn’t a % Daily Value for sugar, but you can compare the sugar content in grams among products.
  • Limit foods with added sugars (sucrose, glucose, fructose, corn or maple syrup), which add calories but not other nutrients, such as vitamins and minerals.
  • Make sure that added sugars are not one of the first few items in the ingredients list.

7. For protein, choose foods that are lower in fat.

Most Americans get plenty of protein, but not always from the healthiest sources. When choosing a food for its protein content, such as meat, poultry, dry beans, milk and milk products, make choices that are lean, low-fat, or fat-free.

Reading Is Key

Having a better grasp on the terms used on food labels and packaging means you’ll be able to make wiser decisions when you eat. But here’s a key point to remember: just because foods claim to be low in fat, nutritious, or low in sodium, they may not be low in calories. You’ll only know if you read the label.

For More Information

US Food and Drug Administration

US Department of Agriculture

Academy of Nutrition & Dietetics


WELCOA (Wellness Council of America)
17002 Marcy Street, Suite 140
Omaha, NE 68118

©2014 Wellness Council of America 200226

The information contained in this brochure has been carefully reviewed for accuracy. It is not intended to replace the advice of your physician or health care provider.