How to make sense of a food label

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Nutrition labels mess with our heads. In a recent survey by Student Health 101, three in five students who responded said that they “sometimes, often, or always” find food labels difficult to interpret and apply to their own life and needs. What does 4 oz. look like? Which matters more, low sodium or low fat? “You might think everything is on the label but it’s not, or ingredients might be listed in a sort of code that you practically need a degree just to figure out. It is so much work to read and truly understand the label,” says Alaine W., a student at Moorpark College, California. Here’s how to get what you need from a food label.

1. Serving size

Often, serving size is not obvious. Servings can add up quickly, especially in processed foods. Individually wrapped servings simplify the label but add cost and packaging waste.

Servings per container 
Check the number of servings per container to find out how many servings you are actually consuming. Sometimes a “serving size” is unrealistically small.

+ Interactive quiz: Serving sizes then & now
+ Visual guide to serving sizes

2. Calories, total fat, total carb, & protein

These numbers are overrated. Most of them are less important than nutritional quality, and you can get a better sense of that from the ingredient list.

Dietary fiber is the exception. Most Americans don’t get enough fiber.

  • Good fiber source: 10% of your daily value
  • High fiber source: 20+% of your daily value

All fats are not created equal. Watch out for hidden trans-fats, , e.g., “hydrogenated” and “partially hydrogenated” oils. These are harmful. You might find them in peanut butter, salad dressings, snack foods, candy, and other processed foods. It is legal to say foods have “zero grams of trans fat per serving” if they contain less than 0.5 grams per serving. Those small amounts add up if you eat them routinely.

Protein is not generally a health concern; most Americans get more than we need.

3. Sugar & sodium

Sugar is tricky to track. Food labels tell us how many grams of sugar are in a serving but give us no guidance about how much sugar we can safely eat.

+ Know your sugar limits

Sodium adds up quickly. Foods considered “low sodium” contain less than 300 milligrams (mg) of sodium per serving.

4. Vitamins & minerals

Look for “% Daily Value.” Rule of thumb:

  • 20% or more: This product provides a high proportion of this daily nutritional requirement.
  • 5% or less: This product provides a low proportion of this daily nutritional requirement.

5. Ingredients

Generally, less is more: Fewer ingredients usually mean the product is less processed and contains more whole foods. Ingredients are listed in order of quantity, from highest to lowest. Pay attention to the first five ingredients. Try to avoid foods with sugar near the start of the list—and be aware that sugar has more than 50 names.

How food labels mess with our heads

According to a recent Student Health 101 survey, students struggle most with:

  • Knowing which nutritional elements to prioritize
  • Misleading packaging terminology (e.g., “natural”)
  • What the percentage Daily Value (DV) means for you
  • Comparing similar products and knowing which is healthiest

“If companies really cared about the health of the consumer, there would be one, official, label—all the information as plain as can be—then a second label to display the most relevant information to the average person in a way they can readily understand.”
—Matthew H., third-year undergraduate, University of North Alabama

“There is not always one right or wrong answer. As a simple rule of thumb, try to choose foods as close to their natural state as possible, and incorporate various food groups (fruits and vegetables, grains, protein, etc.) at every meal.”
—Jenna Volpe, RD, LDN

How students use food labels

In a recent survey by Student Health 101, almost half of the students who responded said they “always or frequently” check food labels (usually for general health and nutrition reasons, sometimes for specific medical reasons including allergies). Only 15 percent rarely or never check food labels.

When are you most likely to read food labels?
When you are:

  • Trying to eat healthier
  • Considering an unfamiliar food item
  • Dealing with a food allergy or intolerance
  • Learning something new about nutrition
  • Considering sugar content and serving size

When are you least likely to read food labels?
You are least likely to consult labels when buying for a party or special occasion.

“When you’re socializing or celebrating, there’s no need to throw in the towel. Focus on moderation and portion control, and eat consistently throughout the day so you are less likely to over-indulge later in the evening.”
—Jenna Volpe, RD, LDN

See UCookbook for demos of healthful, delicious desserts