A Guide to Reading and Understanding Food Labels for Better Health

April 18, 2024
A young woman is smiling looking down at a jar of salsa reading the nutrition label. She has shoulder-length brown hair, is wearing a blue and white striped shirt and jeans and standing in the aisle of a grocery store. She is pushing a lime green cart with groceries inside including two baguettes and a red pepper.


In today's fast-paced world, where convenience often trumps health, understanding nutrition labels is essential for making informed food choices. Nutrition labels serve as a roadmap, guiding consumers toward healthier options and helping them maintain a balanced diet. However, deciphering these labels can sometimes feel like decoding a cryptic message. Learn how you can empower yourself to make healthier choices for yourself and your family. 

“If you have not turned over a food package in the past few years, you may be surprised to find the Nutrition Facts label has a new look,” said registered dietician and BayCare’s Clinical Nutrition Manager Hailey Lawyer, MS, RD, LD/N, CNSC. “It was updated to highlight the connection between diet and chronic diseases.” 

In 2016, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) updated requirements for the Nutrition Facts label on packaged foods and drinks, the first major update to the label in over 20 years. The update was based on updated scientific information, new nutrition research and input from the public, making it easier for you to make informed food choices that contribute to lifelong healthy eating habits.

The Basics: What Do Nutrition Labels Tell Us?

Nutrition labels provide valuable information about the nutrient content of packaged foods, including details such as serving size, calories, macronutrients (fat, carbohydrates, protein), vitamins, minerals, and sometimes additional information like added sugars and dietary fiber. Let’s look at each part in more detail. 

  1. Serving Size: The serving size represents the amount of food typically consumed in one sitting. Pay attention to this, as all other information on the label is based on this serving size. According to the FDA, it is not a recommendation of how much you should eat or drink.
  2. Calories: This indicates the amount of energy provided by one serving of the food. Be mindful of calorie intake, especially if you're trying to manage your weight. To achieve or maintain a healthy body weight, balance the number of calories you eat and drink with the number of calories your body uses. Your calorie needs vary based on your age, sex, height, weight and activity level. 
  3. Sodium: Consume less than 2,300 milligrams of sodium (approximately one teaspoon of salt) each day, or the amount set for you by your health care team.
  4. Fat: The nutrition label lists total fat, saturated fat and trans fat. Aim to limit saturated and trans fats, as they can increase the risk of heart disease. Read more about six simple swaps for a healthier you.
  5. Carbohydrates: Total carbohydrates include dietary fiber and sugars. Opt for foods high in dietary fiber and low in added sugars. It’s best to choose carbohydrates wisely, such as fruits, vegetables and whole grains. Limit foods with added sugars and refined grains, such as sugary drinks, desserts and candy. Total Sugars are also listed in this section of the label and include sugars that are added during the processing of foods (e.g., sucrose or dextrose), foods packaged as sweeteners (such as table sugar), sugars from syrups and honey, and sugars from concentrated fruit or vegetable juices. Diets high in calories from added sugars can make it difficult to meet daily recommended levels of important nutrients while staying within calorie limits.
  6. Protein: Essential for building and repairing tissues, protein content is important for overall health. Most adults need around 0.75 g of protein per kilogram of body weight per day to meet basic nutritional requirements. For the average woman, it is 45 g, or 55 g for men. 
  7. Vitamins and Minerals: Some labels list vitamins and minerals, providing valuable information about the nutritional value of the food. Aim for foods rich in vitamins and minerals, such as vitamin D, calcium, iron and potassium. To make sure that your body is getting enough vitamin D, read more about the many natural and delicious ways to amp up your vitamin D intake.

Key Tips for Deciphering Nutrition Labels

  1. Check the Ingredients List: Ingredients are listed in descending order by weight. Choose foods with whole, recognizable ingredients and avoid those with long lists of additives, preservatives and artificial ingredients.
  2. Be Wary of Serving Sizes: Manufacturers sometimes use smaller serving sizes to make the food appear healthier than it actually is. Compare the serving size to the amount you typically consume to get an accurate picture of the nutrient content.
  3. Focus on Nutrient Density: Choose foods that are nutrient-dense, meaning they provide a high amount of nutrients relative to their calorie content. Vegetables, fruits, whole grains, lean proteins and healthy fats are excellent examples of nutrient-dense foods.
  4. Watch Out for Added Sugars: Added sugars can hide in seemingly healthy foods, contributing to weight gain and various health problems. Look for terms like sugar, 
    corn syrup, high-fructose corn syrup and fruit juice concentrate in the ingredients list.
  5. Pay Attention to Percent Daily Value (%DV): The %DV on a food label indicates how much a nutrient in a single serving contributes to a daily diet based on a 2,000-calorie diet.  For example, if the DV for a certain nutrient is 300 micrograms (mcg) and a packaged food or supplement has 30 mcg in one serving, the %DV for that nutrient in a serving of the product is 10%. Use the %DV to determine if a serving of the food is high or low in a specific nutrient. As a general guide, 5% DV or less of a nutrient per serving is considered low, while 20% or more is considered high. 

The Bottom Line
Understanding nutrition labels is an essential skill for anyone striving to improve their diet and overall health. By carefully reading and interpreting these labels, you can make informed decisions about the foods you consume, ultimately leading to better health outcomes. Remember, small changes in your food choices can have a big impact on your well-being in the long run. So next time you're at the grocery store, take a moment to read and understand the nutrition labels – your body will thank you for it.

If you are looking for personalized help, BayCare offers an Outpatient Medical Nutrition Therapy program to help you meet your health goals. BayCare’s registered dietitian nutritionists provide individualized care by equipping you with the tips and tools necessary to meet your nutritional goals. The outpatient nutrition counseling programs also help you understand the role of nutrition in the prevention and treatment of medical conditions. 



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