How to read a food label

Learn the basics of reading nutrition labels on food so grocery shopping is a breeze.

Maybe you started out as one of those people who never looked at food labels – you worked out frequently, had a stellar metabolism and ate what you liked. But now, your metabolism is catching up to you and you're pretty sure you eat too much sugar, so it's time to start checking out food labels.

Food labels can be a bit daunting, and they can be a lot of work to read every time you buy something new. But if you know the basics and focus on the ingredients you're most concerned about – which will be different for each person – you'll get a better idea about what processed products contain. Here are the basics for reading and interpreting a food label:

Serving size
First, not the serving size. The calories, fat, cholesterol, sugars, protein, fiber and everything else are all based on one serving size as detailed by the Food and Drug Administration. So, for example, you might grab a bag of chips and skim down the fat and sodium levels and think "Hey, that's not bad!" But when you look at the serving size, you notice that the bag contains 2.5 servings … and you were planning to eat the entire bag of chips in one sitting.

The rest of the numbers can be deceiving if you don't first read the the serving size and notice how many servings are in each container of food.

Percent of daily value
Each aspect of the food measured on the label is expressed in grams and also percent daily value. The food labels are based on a 2,000 calorie diet, but some people need as many as 2,500 calories per day while others can eat less – or plan to eat less to lose weight.

Other measurements to note
Many things are measured on a food label, but here are other important ones to pay attention to:

  • Calories and calories from fat
  • Total fat, which also shows saturated and trans fats
  • Protein
  • Fiber
  • Sugars
  • Sodium
  • Various vitamins

At the bottom of the food label, the ingredients are also listed. Generally, the more ingredients a food item has, the less healthy it is for you. If you have food allergies, it's especially important to read this list carefully. Although the FDA requires that below the ingredient list, products state if they contain – or are produced in an environment with other products that contain – the most common food allergens, like wheat, soy, dairy, milk, eggs and nuts. Ingredients that many people believe should be avoided are high fructose corn syrup, partially hydrogenated oils, sodium nitrate and nitrite, BHA, sodium benzoate, food colorings and various others.

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