Ask any expert how to tell if a food fits into a balanced eating plan or is nutrient-dense, and you’ll likely hear: “Just read the label!” It may sound simple, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy — especially since the nutritional label underwent a recent makeover.
Nutrition labels and ingredient lists are dizzying displays of numbers and confusing (or downright unrecognizable) terms. So if you don’t know exactly what you’re looking for, attempting to make sense of them is pretty much on par with bumbling through your college biology textbook.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. Even though nutrition labels are chock-full of information, you really only need to pay attention to a few specific things to determine whether a food is going to add some nutrient goodness to your day. Here’s what they are.
Common nutrition terms to know
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates terms used on food labels. Here are some to look for:
- Calorie-free: Less than 5 calories per serving
- Low calorie: 40 calories or less per serving
- Reduced calorie/fat: At least 25 percent less calories/fat than the original product
- Fat-free: Less than 0.5 grams (g) of fat per serving
- Low fat: 3 g or less of fat per serving
- Low sodium: 140 milligrams (mg) or less of sodium per serving
- Very low sodium: 35 mg or less of sodium per serving
- Low cholesterol: 20 mg or less of cholesterol per serving
- Sugar-free: Less than 0.5 g of sugar per serving
- High fiber: Contains 20 percent or more of the recommended Daily Value of fiber per serving
This is the place to start. Before you dig into that bag of chips or box of cereal, look at how many servings are in the entire package. That’s how you know exactly how many calories and nutrients you’re getting per serving.
Multi-serving packages can be tricky. Take a bag of potato chips into the den with you and plop down in front of your favorite mystery series, and you could easily munch through a few servings before you figure out who committed the crime!
Serving sizes are usually measured out in standard units, like cups. If you measure out one serving before you head into the den, you’ll be more aware of what you’ll consume.
You’re probably used to looking at the big, bold number of calories first — or maybe it’s the only thing you look at, period. And while the number definitely counts, where those calories come from might matter even more.
“A healthy snack bar may have as many calories as a candy bar, but the sugar is lower and the fats are healthier, and it provides protein and fiber,” says Rania Batayneh, MPH, nutritionist and author of The One One One Diet.
Serving size (see above) is also important to note. If you see 150 calories on the label and then down the entire 4-serving box, you may be eating more calories than you intended.
One warning. If you’re thinking about calories for your daily meals, don’t forget snack foods. These can add up. Make sure the label says your snack contains less than 200 calories per serving, suggests registered dietitian Lauren Harris-Pincus, MS, RDN, founder of Nutrition Starring YOU.
Just make sure you don’t get too invested in counting those calories as that can lead to disordered eating behaviors. Learn about mindful eating which focuses on honoring your body’s needs and fullness cues and savoring what you eat.
This is also a good number to watch. It tells you how much of your total daily allotment of that particular nutrient you’re getting in one serving. So if a serving of nuts contains 20 percent of your daily fat, you know how much more fat your body likely needs for the rest of the day.
As a general guide:
The nutrition label lists total fat, saturated fat, and trans fat. It’s the last two you want to focus on.
Saturated fat is the kind you’ll find in a burger, hot dog, or glass of whole milk. Eating a lot of foods high in saturated fat, may boost your risk for heart disease. That’s why the American Heart Association recommends getting no more than 5 or 6 percent of your daily calories from this type of fat.
Trans fat is the kind that’s added to processed, packaged foods like crackers and cookies. It’s an artificial fat made by adding hydrogen to vegetable oil to solidify it. Trans fat makes snack foods taste good and extends their shelf life, sure, but it also raises levels of artery-clogging low density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol.
No amount of trans fat is OK, which is why the FDA has banned the stuff. But be warned. Legally, a food is allowed to contain up to 0.5 grams of trans fat per serving to be considered trans fat-free. Look for code words like “partially hydrogenated oil” in the ingredients list and limit those foods as much as you can.
This sticky, fatty substance comes from foods like meat, whole milk, shellfish, butter, and egg yolks. Though you need some cholesterol for your body to make hormones and vitamin D, too much of the sticky stuff can cling to your artery walls and increase your risk for heart disease. That’s why you want to aim low when you’re looking at food labels.
Choosing foods like whole eggs (which contain loads of other nutrients) is a good way to consume cholesterol in ways that benefit you.
We’re supposed to get less than 2,300 milligrams of sodium daily — about a teaspoon. That probably doesn’t sound like much. Getting too zealous with the salt shaker can have effects on blood pressure.
Most of us get far more salt than we need. And much of that sodium comes from the packaged and processed foods we consume, like pretzels, frozen pizza, and jarred pasta sauce.
Keep the salt levels under control by making sure snack foods (like granola bars or pretzels) you buy have less than 300 milligrams of sodium. For meals (like a frozen burrito or canned soup), keep it below 700 milligrams, Batayneh and Harris-Pincus recommend.
Carbohydrates on a food label include three types: Sugar, starch, and fiber. The first two raise blood sugar, while the third doesn’t (see below). If your doctor recommends that you count refined carbs, especially if you have diabetes, use the total grams on the label as a guide. Most folks should be including a good amount of complex carbs and whole grains in their diet, so don’t jump on the low carb bandwagon without consulting with your doc or a registered dietitian.
Ideally, carbs should make up about 50 percent of your total caloric intake, Batayneh says. (If you’re eating 2,000 calories per day, that’s around 250 grams of carbs.)
“Activity levels do play a role in determining your body’s needs, but it’s all about balance and quality of your food choices,” she says. “Not all carbs are created equal, but eliminating them completely can backfire.”
A decent amount of fiber means that your packaged food is more than just low nutrient amounts in a shiny wrapper. Fiber slows digestion to help you stay fuller longer and stave off blood sugar spikes — so you’re less likely to crave snacks later.
Fiber is one nutrient where more is almost always better. The American Heart Association recommends at least 25 grams of daily fiber. Ask your doctor for specifics on your needs.
A good rule of thumb: Aim for at least 4 grams of fiber per serving for grains (like whole wheat pasta or mac and cheese) and at least 3 grams of fiber per serving for packaged snacks or breads.
Added sugar is something you want to eat less of in general, which manufacturers put in their products to make them sweeter. A recent nutritional label facelift can help you spot the source of the sugar in your food. New labels separate out added sugar and total sugar (natural plus added sugar), and include the percent daily value of added sugar per serving.
Natural sugar comes in foods like milk (lactose), and fruit (fructose). Added sugars go by dozens of names. A few of the most common are high fructose corn syrup or anything ending in “ose” (like glucose, fructose, sucrose, dextrose, and maltose).
Other sources of added sugar — like agave nectar, sucanat, molasses, maple syrup, evaporated cane juice, coconut sugar, or brown rice syrup — all count, too. No matter where it comes from, these added sugars can affect your body like regular sugar. Too much of it can up your risk for obesity and diabetes, Batayneh says.
As for artificial sweeteners? If they’re zero-calorie, they won’t be listed as part of the total sugar grams.
Finding a cereal or snack bar with 0 grams of sugar might be unrealistic, but try to pick packaged items that contain as little added sugar as possible. Your goal: Look for food that contains fewer grams of sugar than fiber, recommends Harris-Pincus. And try to get no more than 10 percent of your total daily calories from the sweet stuff.
Protein is part of just about everything that happens in your body. You need it for energy, growth, cell repair, and more.
Odds are you already get enough protein in your diet — most Americans do. It comes from animal sources like meat, fish, and poultry; as well as from beans, nuts, and seeds.
Everyone’s protein needs are different. Bodybuilders need more than the rest of us most of the time. And yes, there is such a thing as eating too much protein.
While dietitians are hesitant to nail down a number for meals in general, look for snacks with 5 to 10 grams of protein, Harris-Pincus suggests, to help keep you satisfied.
Healthy eating can seem super complicated — especially when you’re trying to navigate the rows and rows of packaged foods on the shelf. The nutrition label takes a lot of the guesswork out of figuring out which products will give you the most nutritional bang for your buck.
Eating right really is a numbers game. When it comes to nutrients like vitamins, minerals, and fiber, go high. With unhealthy stuff like fat, sodium, and sugar, go low. And if you have any questions, talk with doctor or a dietitian for advice.