Label reading can take a little extra time, but those few minutes pay off with knowledge that will help you make healthier food choices. In addition to providing guidelines about how much of a certain food to eat, nutrition labels tell you what’s in that food and how it fits into your daily diet.
Serving information, including the amount of food in a single serving and the number of servings in the total package, is at the top of a nutrition label. If you struggle with portion control or are often unsure about how much of a specific food you should be eating, the serving information is useful to note. Most labels provide suggested serving sizes in general amounts, such as pieces or cups, in addition to metric amounts. Using a digital scale when you measure out food can help you be more exact with the portions you eat.
Each nutrition facts label tells you the amount of calories, carbohydrates, protein, cholesterol, sodium, fiber, sugar and fat, including saturated fat, that’s in a single serving of the food you’re eating. Knowing these amounts helps you plan a balanced diet. Many nutrition authorities recommend that you get about 50 percent to 55 percent of total calories from carbs, 10 percent to 15 percent from protein and less than 30 percent from fat. The healthiest foods typically have low amounts of saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol and sodium.
You can tell what might be a “low” amount of any nutrient by checking out the percentage of the daily value, abbreviated as "% DV" on the far right of a nutrition label. According to the American Heart Association, a nutrient amount of 5 percent or less is low. The daily value percentages on nutrition labels are based on a daily diet of 2,000 calories. Depending on factors including your age, sex and physical activity level, you may need fewer or more calories than that, but the included percentages are good markers in choosing foods that are best for your diet.
Sometimes nutrition labels can be misleading, despite the helpful information they provide. As of 2014, for example, labels don’t specify the type of sugar in a food and whether it is natural or added. In the future, the Food and Drug Administration does intend to require labels to state the amount of added sugar in a serving. Future labels are also likely to include more realistic serving sizes. That means an individually packaged muffin that’s listed as containing two or three “servings” will instead include nutrition information for the whole package, which can encourage healthier eating. One part of a food's label that doesn't lie is the ingredients list. If you're curious about what exactly a product contains, look there first.
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