Open Accessibility Menu

How to Read Nutrition Labels

How to Read Nutrition Labels

Reading nutrition labels can help you make informed food choices when you’re shopping. Each label tells you what you’re putting into your body and how much of each ingredient you are eating. This information is key to maintaining a healthy weight and keeping many health conditions in check, including diabetes, heart disease, and more.

What Does the Label Mean?

Located at the top are the serving size and the total number of servings in the package. The most important and most reliable nutritional information can be found on the nutrition facts panel and the ingredient listing. These are the essentials:

  • Serving Information (top of the label): The number of servings in the package or container and the serving size. The serving size is the amount that people typically eat or drink—not how much you should eat or drink.
  • Calories (second on the label): A measure of how much energy you get from a serving of the food. To maintain a healthy body weight, balance the number of calories you eat and drink with the number of calories your body uses. The number of servings you eat determines the number of calories, too.
  • Nutrients (listed after calories): The key nutrients you receive from the food. Look for foods with those nutrients you want more of and limit those you want less. For example, try to eat less saturated fat, sodium, and added sugars. Choose foods with the nutrients you need to meet your health goals, such as lowering cholesterol.
  • Percent Daily Value (on the right beside each nutrient): The %DV is how much of a nutrient in each serving contributes to your total daily diet. There’s no need to add—the label does the math for you. The percentage tells you if a food is high or low in a nutrient and if that serving contributes a lot or very little to your daily diet.

5 Tips for Making Healthier Choices

  1. Don’t believe the front of the box. Many foods are packaged to catch your attention and convince you the food is healthy. They often don’t tell the whole story. Always check the back of the nutrition label to confirm that the following buzzwords are truly accurate:
    • Fat-free
    • Fortified or enriched
    • Fruit-flavored
    • Good source of
    • Gluten-free
    • Light
    • Low-calorie
    • Low-cholesterol
    • Low-fat
    • Multigrain
    • Natural
    • No added sugar
    • Organic
    • Reduced
    • Zero trans fat
  2. Always check the serving size—and the number of servings per package. Many people eat more than the recommended serving size, so keep this in mind when determining how many calories you’ll actually consume.
  3. Scan the first three ingredients. These make up the largest part of what you’re eating. Choose items with healthy whole foods listed in the top 3.
  4. Limit saturated fat, trans fat, sodium, and added sugars. They only increase your risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, cancer, and more. Instead, eat more dietary fiber, vitamin D, calcium, iron, potassium, protein, and select carbohydrates like whole-grain breads, rice, and vegetables.
  5. Use the percent daily value (%DV) as a tool to see if there’s too much or too little of a specific nutrient. Less than 5% is considered too little, and more than 15% is a lot. Most often, choose foods that are higher in %DV for dietary fiber, vitamin D, calcium, iron, and potassium. Foods that have a lower %DV, like saturated fat, sodium, and added sugars, are preferred.

Harmful Ingredients to Avoid

Deciphering all the ingredients listed on the label can be tricky. Some ingredients, like sugar, can take on many different names. Others sound healthy but can really harm your body, especially if you have health conditions like diabetes, high blood pressure, or high cholesterol that are affected by your diet. These are a few to avoid:

  • Artificial sweetener
  • Aspartame (artificial sugar)
  • Cane sugar
  • Corn syrup
  • Dextrose
  • Fructose
  • Glucose
  • High fructose
  • Maltose
  • Partially hydrogenated oil (another name for trans-fat)
  • Phosphoric acid (what makes soda so bubbly but also negatively impacts your bones and teeth)
  • Raw sugar
  • Saccharin
  • Sodium nitrite (a preservative added to make meats last longer)
  • Sucralose
  • Unrefined sugar
  • Xanthan gum (a sugar-like compound)

Find Healthy Eating Resources in Frederick

Now that you know how to read your nutrition labels, it’s time to shop smarter on your next grocery trip. Visit our partners at LiveWell Frederick for more healthy food tips like these or join Frederick Health Rewards for discounts at healthy food vendors like Common Market Co+Op, Sanctuary Modern Kitchen, and more.

For help with any specialty dietary needs, nutrition counseling is available at Frederick Health. We work with all types of health needs and lifestyles, from food and dietary allergy issues to weight management and more. Learn more about Nutrition & Weight Management on our website or call 240-215-1474 for a consultation.