Get the Skinny on Food Labels

Deciphering the numbers and acronyms on a nutrition label might feel like cracking the Rosetta stone. If you know what to look at, though, these facts can be the key to a healthier you. This guide will provide the basics you need to create nourishing daily meals.

Nutritional Facts

Serving Size

This info, which appears right at the top of the label, informs everything else you'll read. If you're like me, you've been tricked by serving size one too many times. That small package of cookies might look like a single serving, but the label may reveal that it's meant to be split into two (or more) snacks. This part of the label clearly states the size of a serving and the number of servings in the package.

Dairy aisle

Calories Per Serving

In this section, you'll find out just how many calories you'll consume with each serving. For example, if a box of crackers contains 8 servings at 200 calories each, you can multiple the number of servings you plan to eat by 200 to estimate your total intake. Most people should get about 2,000 calories each day according to the FDA, but this varies based on age, weight and health status.

Some food labels have two columns. This design shows you the calories and nutrients in a single serving as well as in the entire food package.

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Ingredient List

Unless you're buying a product with just one ingredient, the nutrition label must have an ingredient list. These items appear in descending order by weight. In other words, the first ingredient represents the largest portion of the product while the last ingredient represents the smallest amount.

Girl Grocery shopping

Percent Daily Values

This column next to each ingredient (%DV) indicates the percentage of that nutrient you should consume each day. When it comes to vitamins, minerals, fiber and other ingredients that support good health, look for a %DV of around 20% or higher.

You should limit unhealthy ingredients like sodium, cholesterol, trans fat and saturated fat. Stick to choices with 5%DV or less in this category based on advice from the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

Grocery aisle

Words To Learn

Federal law prevents food manufacturers from using certain terms unless their product meets specific criteria. Get ahead of the game by understanding what these words really mean:

  • Foods labeled as "high in" something must have at least 20%DV of that nutrient. Manufacturers can also use the term "excellent source of..." in this case.
  • A "good source" of a nutrient has 10 to 19%DV of that ingredient.
  • Low-sodium foods have no more than 140 mg of salt in each serving.
  • Sugar-free and fat-free foods must have less than 1/2 g of sugar or fat in each serving.
  • If a food is labeled "calorie-free," it has fewer than 5 calories in each serving. "Low-cal" foods have fewer than 40 calories per serving.
  • The word "reduced" indicates that the product has at least 25% less of something than the standard version, usually calories, sugar or fat.
  • Low-cholesterol foods must have less than 2 g of saturated fat and 20 mg or less of cholesterol.
  • Total sugars are present naturally in foods, including healthy items such as fruits. These are listed separately from added sugars, which can torpedo your efforts to stay healthy.
Grocery aisle

When deciding whether a specific food fits with your nutritional goals, go straight to the nutrition label with your newfound knowledge. Avoid looking at the front of the box, which features marketing claims that may or may not reflect the actual quality of the product. No matter what your dietary goals, reading food labels correctly gives you a map to success.

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