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How to Read Food Labels

May 06, 2015

Do you ever find yourself standing in the aisle of the grocery store pondering which products to choose? With so many options, it’s hard to know which foods are the most nutritious.

According to the FDA, more than half of consumers report reading food labels the first time they buy a product, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they understand what everything on the label actually means. Here are some guidelines to help you interpret food labels and make nutritious choices.

Serving Size vs. Portion Size
A serving size is the recommended amount we should eat, while a portion size is the amount we choose to eat. Most packages contain a lot more than one serving, so it’s important to look at how many servings are in a package.

If you eat more than what’s recommended, the larger portions will lead to weight gain. Even eating just 100 extra calories a day can lead to a 10 pound weight gain in one year.

Minimize Unhealthy Fats and Sodium
The Nutrition Facts Label lists the amount of Total Fat and breaks that down into different types of fat: Saturated Fat, Polyunsaturated Fat, Monounsaturated Fat and Trans Fat.

  • Saturated and trans fats can raise “bad” cholesterol and lower “good” cholesterol, so limit these! Use the % Daily Value (DV) on the right column to choose low Saturated Fat products (aim for 5% or less). It’s also best to avoid any food with hydrogenated oils, so check the ingredients section of the label for the word “hydrogenated” – that will tell you if the product contains trans fats.
  • Polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats are considered “heart-healthy” because they often help to lower cholesterol and come from plant-based foods like avocados, fish, nuts and seeds.  Although these foods are healthy sources of fat, they should be consumed in moderation because they are still high in calories.
  • Keep sodium as low as possible by choosing foods that have 20% Daily Value or less of sodium.

Added Sugar vs. Natural Sugar
Unlike fats or sodium, sugar is measured in grams and does not have a % Daily Value. Limit foods with added sugar, which is listed in the ingredients on a label as sugar, high fructose corn syrup, corn syrup/sweetener, cane sugar, fructose, maltose, glucose or maple sugar. Naturally occurring sugar is found in whole foods, such as fruit, yogurt and milk.

Increase Your Fiber by Choosing Whole Grains
Whole grains contain fiber, which reduces your risk of developing heart disease, type 2 diabetes and obesity – try to make sure at least half of your grains are whole grains. It’s best if “whole grain” is first on the ingredient list. Avoid wheat breads or other products with “enriched white flour” as the first ingredient.

Label Reading can be tricky if you don’t know what you are looking for. To summarize, here are some quick tips to remember:

  • Limit yourself to the serving size recommended on the package
  • Keep saturated fat as low as possible (<5%DV)
  • Keep sodium to 20% Daily Value or less
  • Avoid foods that contain hydrogenated oils (trans fat) and added sugars
  • Look for Whole Grain as the first ingredient

For more healthy eating tips, check out our Center for Healthy Weight and Nutrition.

Featured Expert

Nationwide Children's Hospital Medical Professional
Ericca L Lovegrove, RD
Center for Healthy Weight and Nutrition

Ericca Lovegrove is a Registered and Licensed Dietitian with the Center For Healthy Weight and Nutrition at Nationwide Children’s Hospital. She spends time on Main Campus, in Community Pediatric Offices, and teaching a weight management class for children and their families

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700 Children’s® features the most current pediatric health care information and research from our pediatric experts – physicians and specialists who have seen it all. Many of them are parents and bring a special understanding to what our patients and families experience. If you have a child – or care for a child – 700 Children’s was created especially for you.