How to Read a Nutrition Label
Learn which information on a nutrition label is most important for your nutritional needs (and how to avoid falling for false claims).
Detailed nutrition labels are supposed to make it easier for you to select healthy foods. But sometimes they cause information overload – and confusion. Is it more important that something has fewer overall grams (g) of fat or fewer trans fats? Are you better off getting fewer calories even if it means getting fewer nutrients?
Here are some tips for deciphering nutrition label information.
Focus on the Fats
Look for products with less than 1 g of saturated fat and no trans fat, says registered dietitian Jennifer Vimbor of Nutrition Counseling Services in New York.
“If you’re looking to lose weight, look for foods that are low in fat overall,” she says.
Foods with the “low fat” label, for example, contain fewer than 3 grams of fat per serving.
Research shows that having some fat in your diet is good. Scan the labels for polyunsaturated fats and monounsaturated fats, which are healthier than saturated fats.
Fill up on Fiber
Preliminary research indicates that a high-fiber diet (more than 25 g per day) lowers cholesterol and helps prevent diabetes. A “high-fiber” food has at least 5 g of fiber per serving.
Manufacturers sometimes process dietary fiber out of a product and then add processed fiber, so foods labeled “high fiber” might not be as healthy as they seem. (Ingredients including inulin, polydextrose or maltodextrin suggest fiber is added.) Look for products made with bran, oats or other whole grains, which are nutritious sources of fiber.
Remember, even nutritious products like yogurt with supplemental fiber may have a lot of added sugar, says Alicia Romano, clinical registered dietitian at Tufts Medical Center.
Skimp on Sodium
A high-sodium diet, like a high-fat diet, puts you at risk for high blood pressure. Experts recommend keeping your total sodium intake at less than 2,400 milligrams (mg) per day.
The American Heart Association requires foods with a “heart healthy” label to contain fewer than 480 mg of sodium and fewer than 20 mg of cholesterol. Remember, even foods with the heart healthy label can be highly processed, sugar-laden and lacking in important vitamins and minerals, so be sure to read the ingredient listings carefully.
Skim the Ingredients
The main ingredients are listed first on a nutrition label, so check out the top three or four. And remember that some ingredients can sneak in under different names. If sugar, molasses, honey, turbinado, maple syrup or high-fructose corn syrup are near the top, you’re getting a lot of sugar, says Vimbor.
Look for Must-Have Nutrients
Tanya Horacek, a registered dietician and associate professor at Syracuse University in New York specifically recommends calcium, vitamin D and omega-3 fatty acids, which are found in fish and flaxseed oil. Consider foods high in antioxidants, such as vitamins C and A, which are believed to have anti-inflammatory properties.
Instead of processed foods, eat a variety of antioxidant-rich whole foods, including a rainbow of deeply hued fruits and vegetables like blueberries, prunes, kidney beans and cherries.
Now that you’re savvy about nutrition label information, you can grocery shop with a more discerning eye.
Updated April 2015