How to Read a Nutrition Food Label (and Why They’re Essential)

How to Read a Nutrition Food Label (and Why They’re Essential)

Amanda A. Kostro Miller, RD, LDN

Maybe you want to lose weight, eat healthier and/or decrease your sugar intake. Regardless of your nutrition goals, it is essential that you know how to interpret food and nutrition labels. They have so much information! Knowing how to interpret a food label will help you understand what you are putting into your body and how it can “make or break” your diet.

What types of food labels are on my food?

On most food items that you buy at the grocery store, you may see several types of food labeling on the product packaging. Let’s talk about how to understand what you are seeing:

Type of Food Labeling Where you May Find It What It Can Tell You
Brand name and logo Front of the package Company or brand that is associated with this product
Certified dietary and production logos

Examples: gluten-free, vegan, vegetarian, organic, GMO-free, soy free

Front of the package There are many different logos you may see in this category. Some certified logos have more regulations than others. However, these labels can help people choose products that align with their diet pattern or values.
Allergen warning Back of the package Indicates if the product has allergen ingredients or has been manufactured in a facility with common allergens (i.e. nuts, wheat). If you have a food allergy, take note of the allergen warning.
Ingredients list Back or side of package This lists tells you what ingredients were added into the product. Ingredients can be food items, seasonings, preservatives, potential allergens, colorings and/or emulsifiers.
Nutrient content claims

Examples: “good source of fiber,” “cholesterol free,” “rich in iron”

Front, side or back of package These claims are regulated statements that are based on the amount of certain nutrients that are in 1 serving of that food item.
Authorized health claims

Examples: “adequate calcium can reduce the risk of osteoporosis,” “limiting saturated fat and cholesterol can reduce the risk of coronary heart disease”

Front, side or back of package These claims are regulated and supported by substantial research to tell you if a food or ingredient in that food can reduce the risk of certain chronic diseases. If you’re trying to eat healthier, authorized health claims can help you make healthier choices.
Nutrition Facts label Back of package This is a graphical representation of several nutrients that are in 1 serving of that food. We will discuss how to read the Nutrition Facts label in detail later in this post.

Fresh produce, grocery bakery items, deli meats and grocery seafood products may not have nutrition labeling. If you have a food product without nutrition labels, you can search that food’s nutrition profile here.

Why are nutrition and food labels helpful?

Now that you know what types of food labels are out there, you may be wondering why all of this information is available on our food. Here are several ways in which you can use the labeling information to your advantage:

  • Building brand loyalty (or generic brand loyalty)
  • Ability to identify harmful food allergens (if you have a food allergy)
  • Ability to choose products that align with your individual dietary needs, preferences and values
  • Better understand how a food is grown/raised (i.e. organic vs. non-organic, grass fed, cage-free)
  • Ensure that your dietary pattern of preference is preserved (i.e. vegan, vegetarian, kosher)
  • Identify ingredients that you want or don’t want in your food products
  • Help you find and compare products that will give you essential nutrients
  • Help you identify products and nutrients that will help you live a healthier life
  • Easy access to the nutrient breakdown of a particular food item

So, if you’re not currently looking at the labels on the food products you consume, consider doing so! You may be missing out on tons of helpful information. Some labels are more clear-cut than others, so let’s tackle one of the most complex labels on a food package: The Nutrition Facts label.

How to Read the Nutrition Facts Label

As mentioned before, the Nutrition Facts label is usually on the back of the package and is a graphical representation of the nutrient breakdown of a food product. In recent years, there have been several changes to the Nutrition Facts label, so you may see a couple different versions until all products meet the new regulations.

Main Components of the Nutrition Facts Label

Let’s work our way down the typical Nutrition Facts label.

  • Serving size: This is the amount of food in which the Nutrition Facts label is based on. It tells you what 1 serving of the food “should” be, but you may eat more or less than this amount. For example, if you eat twice the serving size, you will be getting twice the amount of nutrients that are listed on the Nutrition Facts label. Click the link to learn more about servings versus portions.
  • Servings per container: 1 box, jar or package may contain multiple servings. The number of servings per container is based on the serving size of that item.
  • Calories: Calories are energy (and can cause weight gain, weight loss or weight maintenance depending how we use them). This is the number of calories per 1 serving of a food item.
  • Total fat, Cholesterol, Sodium: These are nutrients that are listed per 1 serving of that particular food item. In general, we want to limit the amount of these nutrients that we consume (with the exception of polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats).
  • Total Carbohydrate: This is the compilation of fiber, sugar and added sugar that is in 1 serving of the food item. In general, we want to increase our fiber intake and decrease the amount of sugar was consume, especially “added sugar.”
  • Protein: The amount of protein in 1 serving of the food.
  • Specified vitamins and minerals: You may also see vitamins and minerals listed like vitamin A and iron. These are nutrients we should try to eat in recommended amounts.

How will YOU use food labeling?

If you’re struggling to meet your nutrition goals, then start reading your food labels!