How to read food labels

Food labels are intended to provide consumers with data to make informed choices. However, given the amount of information on the labels, it can be difficult to mine the data for the information you need. I often ask clients if they read food labels, and they usually say yes. When I ask them what they look for, the conversation goes something like this:

“I look at the sodium, and if it’s high I don’t get that food.”

“What is a high number for sodium?”

“200 or more.”

“Do you know how much sodium you need in a day?”

“No, but 200 seems like a lot in a food.”

Two hundred milligrams of sodium in a food may or may not be high for an individual, but it is clear that most people need a little more information to correctly use food labels.

I consider there to be two levels of label reading. The first is the most basic level for the person who just wants to observe overall healthy-eating guidelines. The second is more detailed, based on individual needs to treat a condition. I will review the first in this post.

There are general nutrition guidelines recommended for Americans to maintain good health. Given that heart disease is the leading cause of death of Americans, both men and women, I will use the guidelines from the American Heart Association (AHA) as the standard. Use their “Fats and Sodium Explorer” to determine your individual needs for calories, fats and sodium.

For adults, calorie goals are individualized based on needs to maintain, lose or gain weight. Much of the label information is based on a recommended goal of 2,000 calories per day. The “% Daily Value” is calculated based on this recommendation. If your calorie needs, calculated on the AHA “Fats and Sodium Explorer,” are higher or lower than 2,000, ignore the “% Daily Value” and make decisions based on the total calories and grams and milligrams of nutrients. Now that we are armed with some useful guidelines, take a moment and get a food label from your kitchen. Let’s take a closer look.

Label Reading 101

Serving size All of the numbers listed on a label are based on 1 serving. If you will be eating 2 servings, for example 1 cup of this food, you must multiply the numbers by 2.
Calories per serving How does this fit with your daily needs? Remember, if you double the servings you eat, double the calories.
Total fat Should provide about 25-35% of calories, or roughly 3 grams of fat per 100 calories.
Saturated fat Limit to less than 20 grams per day.
Trans fat 0 grams per day is best, maximum 2 grams per day.
Sodium Should be limited to 1,500 – 2,400 milligrams per day.
Fiber 3g or more indicates a good source of fiber. Aim for 25-30g per day.
Vitamins A and C, Calcium and Iron Choose foods with high values of these key nutrients.
Sugar Read the ingredient list and avoid foods with sugar as one of the first three ingredients.