How to Read a Food Label
Here's how to make sense of those tricky food-labeling terms
Understanding what's in the foods you buy is key to stocking a nutritious
kitchen. Yet food labels are not always easy to decipher. What exactly are you
getting when you buy "juice," a "multigrain" bread, or a
Throw in terms like "fresh," "no additives," and
"natural," and the confusion meter rises. Though they look good on
packages, these terms aren't regulated, so they don't necessarily mean a food
is better for you.
If you're confused by food labels, you're not alone. A 2005 survey by AJ
Nielsen & Co. found that half of consumers understood nutrition labels only
"in part," although 2 out of 10 said they consistently read them.
The secret to reading a food label is knowing what to look for. If you
understand the label lingo, it's not so difficult to make the healthiest
The Essential Information
The most important and reliable information on the label can be found on the
nutrition facts panel and the ingredient listing.
Here is the information that's most essential:
Calories. Despite all the talk about carbs and fat, calories are
what counts for weight control. So the first thing to look for on a label is
the number of calories per serving. The FDA's new Calories Count program aims
to make calorie information on labels easier to find by putting it in larger,
Serving size and number of servings per container. This
information is critical to understanding everything else on the label. My
daughter was horrified when she realized that the ice-cream sandwich she
regularly ate had twice the calories she thought it did. Her confusion arose
because some manufacturers take what most of us would consider a single-serve
container and call it two servings, hoping the numbers on the label will look
better to consumers.
Dietary Fiber. It helps fill you up, and you need at least 25 grams
daily. To be considered high in fiber, a food must contain least 5 grams per
serving. Fruits, vegetables, and whole grains provide fiber.
Fat. Fat has more calories per gram than carbs or protein, and all
fats have 9 calories/gram. Choose unsaturated fats whenever possible, and limit
foods with saturated and trans fats (also called trans fatty acids).
Manufacturers are required to list the amount of trans fat per serving starting
Jan. 1, 2006, and this information is already showing up on labels. In the
meantime, look for terms such as "partially hydrogenated" or
"hydrogenated," which indicate the product contains trans fats.
Sodium per serving. Sodium should be restricted to 2,300 mg per day
(that's less than 1 teaspoon of salt) for healthy adults, and 1,500 mg for
those with health problems or family histories of high blood pressure. To
reduce your sodium intake, choose less processed foods.
Sugar. It adds plenty of calories, and is often listed on the label
in "alias" terms, like "high fructose corn syrup,"
"dextrose," "invert sugar," "turbinado," etc. Choose
foods with less than 5 grams per serving to help control calories.
% Daily Value (% DV). This reflects the percentage of a certain
nutrient that the food supplies, based on a 2,000 calorie diet. It gives you a
rough idea of the food's nutrient contribution to your diet. The nutrients
highlighted in the % DV are a partial list, limited to those of concern to the
Ingredient List. Manufacturers are required to list all of the
ingredients contained in the product by weight. A jar of tomato sauce with
tomatoes as the first ingredient lets you know that tomatoes are the main
ingredient. The spice or herb listed last is contained in the least amount.
This information is critical for anyone who has allergies, and for prudent
shoppers who want, say, more tomatoes than water, or whole grain as the leading
The FDA sets specific rules for what food manufacturers can call
"light," "low," "reduced," "free," and other
food terms. Here's the low-down on interpreting these terms:
"Is organic food really better than conventional foods? Not
- "Healthy" food must be low in fat, with limited cholesterol and
- Anything labeled "free" must only contain tiny amounts of the
ingredient in each serving. For example, "trans-fat free" or
"fat-free" products can have only 0.5 mg of trans fats or fat;
"cholesterol-free" foods can only have 2 milligrams of cholesterol and
2 grams of saturated fat.
- A serving of a food labeled "low sodium" can have a maximum of 140
milligrams of sodium.
- A serving of "low cholesterol" food can have a maximum of 20
milligrams of cholesterol and 2 grams of saturated fat.
- One serving of a "low-fat" food can have a maximum of 3 grams of
- A serving of a "low-calorie" food can have a maximum of 40
- A serving of a food labeled "reduced" must have 25% less of the
ingredient (such as fat) than a serving of the regular version.
- One serving of a "light" food must have 50% less fat or 1/3 fewer
calories than the regular version.