by: Riley Johnson, Dietetic Intern | Purdue University Coordinated Program | Personal Trainer | Purdue Recreation and Wellness

Do you ever look at a food product and wonder what’s in it? Do you ever look at a food label and just don’t know where or what to look for? Well, look no further. By the end of this article, you will be a food label pro and know exactly what to look for.

Start with Servings per Container and Serving Size

When looking at a food item turn to the back of the product and you will see a food label, like the one shown below. At the very top of the label is serving size and the number of servings per container. This information is helpful to know how many servings the product will yield and the size of each serving. This can also be a useful tool when checking portion sizes. For example: If the serving size on the label is one cup and you eat two cups then you know you are getting twice the calories and other nutrients.

Check out the Total Calories Next

Moving down the food label. Next is the total calories in the large, bold text telling you how many calories are in each serving. This is helpful information so you can know how many calories you are consuming each day.

Percent Daily Values

Next on the food label on the right side is the percent daily values. This percent daily value shows you what percent each nutrient is providing you for the day based on a 2,000 calorie diet. If you are eating a food that has 10% of your daily value of vitamin D then that means the serving size of that food is meeting 10% of your daily requirement for vitamin D if you consume 2,000 calories a day. It is important to remember that percent daily values are for the entire day, not just for one meal or snack. Also, you may need more or less than 2,000 calories per day, so you may also need more or less than 100% of the daily value. Some good things to know and recognize are: 5% or less is low and 20% or more is high. Try to aim low in saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol, and sodium. Aim high in vitamins, minerals, and dietary fiber.

Limit Saturated Fat, Trans Fat, Sodium, and Added Sugars

Eating less saturated fat, trans fat, sodium, and added sugars may help reduce risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, and cancer. Try to limit saturated fat intake to less than 10% of total daily calories and try to replace them with unsaturated fats. Also, limit trans fat to as low as possible. Limit sodium to less than 2,300 mg daily. Lastly, try to limit added sugar to less than 10% of total calories.

Get Enough Vitamins, Minerals and Fiber

Be sure to look for the vitamin and mineral contents on the food label. Try to buy foods high in dietary fiber, vitamin D, calcium, and potassium to support overall health. Remember to look at the percent daily value for these nutrients.

Additional Nutrients

One of the last things to look at on the food label is carbohydrates, protein, and fat. Starting with carbohydrates there are three types: sugars, starches, and fiber. Good sources of carbohydrates include whole grain breads, cereals, rice, fruit, vegetables, and low-fat milk and yogurt. Moving on to protein try to get a wide variety of protein foods. Different types of protein include seafood, poultry, lean meats, eggs, beans, legumes, nuts, and soy products. Then be sure to also look at the type of fat in the product. Try to limit saturated fat and trans fat intake. Both of these may cause heart disease among other health complications. Consume foods rich in unsaturated fats such as avocados, olive oil, peanut butter, salmon, nuts, and seeds.

Health Claims

Health claims can be tricky in what they actually mean. Here are some of the common claims seen on food packages:

  • Low calorie — Less than 40 calories per serving.
  • Low cholesterol —20 mg or less of cholesterol and 2 gm or less of saturated fat per serving.
  • Reduced — 25% less of the specified nutrient or calories than the usual product.
  • Good source of — Provides at least 10% of the DV of a particular nutrient per serving.
  • Calorie free — Less than 5 calories per serving.
  • Fat free / sugar free — Less than ½ gram of fat or sugar per serving.
  • Low sodium —140 mg or less of sodium per serving.
  • High in (or Excellent source of)— Provides 20% or more of the DV of a specified nutrient per serving.

You now know the essentials of the food label and what to look for. Next time you’re in the store look for the food label on the back of the package.

References:

Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Shop Smart— Get the Facts on the New Food Labels. Staff Registered Dietitians Nutritionist. (2018). PDF.

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