By Daniel Pievsky, M.S., R.D.
Brigham and Women's Hospital
The food label is the one piece of information on the food package that doesn't lie to you. It's much more reliable than advertising claims. All the information that you need to make healthy and nutritious choices is right there in black and white. The key is knowing where to look and what it means.
Don't be intimidated by food labels. You can make sense of any food label — no matter the size, shape or complexity — by using the tools below.
Step 1 -- Check the serving size
When scanning the label, the first thing to check is the serving size. It is always the first item on the label. All other information is based on that serving size. You can see from the label on the right that the serving size is 1 cup. The 260 calories listed on the label refer to each 1 cup serving, not the entire package. The servings per container will let you know how many portions are in the whole box, package, or can. In this case, there are 2 servings per container, or 2 cups total. When comparing products, make sure they have the same serving size or it will not be an accurate comparison.
Caution: Most of the time a package will have more than one serving in it, so make sure to multiply all of the data by the servings per container to get the total amounts for the box.
Serving size: 1 cup
Servings per container: 2
Calories per serving: 260
Calories per box: 520 (260 x 2)
Step 2 -- Calories per serving are key
It is very important to look at the number of calories in a product. They're what really matters when it comes to losing weight. Most women need between 1,600 and 2,000 calories, while most men require 2,000 to 2,400 calories per day.
Tip: Ignore the calories from fat; a calorie is a calorie, and fat data is shown elsewhere on the label.
Step 3 -- The nutrients take center stage
The heart of the food label has information about saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol and sodium. This information is important for any specific dietary concerns you have. For example, if a heart-healthy diet is your goal, then look for items that are lower in saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol and sodium. (The lower the better.)
If you have diabetes, then also look at the total carbohyrate and dietary fiber amounts. For a general healthy diet, keep saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol and sodium as low as you can and increase your fiber intake.
If you get a lot of protein in your diet from red meat, chicken, fish, eggs, or pork, you won't need to select foods based on protein content.
Tip: The % daily value (the percentages on the right side) are based on a person who eats exactly 2,000 calories a day. But they are a useful tool to compare the nutritional value of two items quickly (assuming the serving size is the same).
Step 4 -- Vitamins and minerals complete the picture
Calcium, iron, vitamin C and vitamin A amounts are always on food labels. They are nice to know, but they are very minor compared to other info on the label. Don't use the vitamin or mineral content as a basis for buying a product unless everything else is equal.
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Food for Thought
Decoding food labels is a great skill to have and something that you can easily learn. Follow these four steps and you will be able to read and understand any food label.
Have a plan when you go food shopping. Decide what's most important to you when selecting foods, whether it is sodium level, fiber, or fat. You probably won't find the perfect food (most of the truly healthy foods like fruits and vegetables do not have food labels on them), but you will surely make better decisions than if you did not read the label.
Tip: When you look at the front of the package you will often see many claims. Learn how to decipher them. Always make sure to look at the back and sides of the package and you will not go wrong.
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Daniel Pievsky, M.S., R.D. is a graduate of Framingham State College with a M.S. in Nutrition. He is currently a clinical dietitian at the Brigham and Women's Hospital.