How to Read a Nutrition Label

August 6, 2023

Nutrition labels can be extremely difficult to understand. Discover how to read nutrition labels and why they are important. 

Why are nutrition labels important?

Let’s face it, reading nutrition labels is HARD and can be very confusing and frustrating. Food labels can also be misleading which only creates more confusion. When and how do you know when a food is truly as healthy as it says it is? More and more consumers are becoming health conscious and want to be confident they are making the healthiest choice for themselves and their families. Nutrition facts have only been required on food labels since 1990. When you think about it, that is a long time for us to be confused.

Nutrition labels can provide a lot of important information about our food. They give us the calories, serving sizes, and the nutrient content of our foods. Reading these labels accurately is important in food education, as well as mindful eating. Let me break things down for you and make things simpler.

step-by-step guide on how to read a nutrition label: 

1. Start with the serving size

The serving size is listed at the top of the label and represents the amount of food the nutrition information applies to. All the values mentioned on the label, such as calories and nutrients, are based on this serving size.

A conscious mindfulness of a food’s serving size can be crucial to wellness success and choosing the appropriate foods along your journey. 

2. Check the total calories

Look for the “Calories” section, which indicates the number of calories in one serving of the food. This value tells you how much energy you’ll consume from that portion.

3. Evaluate the macronutrients

The macronutrients include carbohydrates, fats, and proteins. These are usually listed directly under the calories section.

a. Carbohydrates: Look for the total carbohydrates, which includes dietary fiber and sugars. If you’re watching your carb intake, check the sugar content and fiber content.

b. Fats: Observe the total fat content. Additionally, check for saturated and trans fats, as these should be limited in a healthy diet. Unsaturated fats, such as monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, are generally healthier options and can be found in plant-based oils, avocados, as well as olives. 

c. Proteins: Protein content is usually listed in grams. Consider the amount of protein you need and compare it to the serving size. To learn your appropriate daily protein intake, consult your healthcare provider, nutritionist, or registered dietitian. 

4. Monitor micronutrients

Below the macronutrients, you’ll find a section that lists various micronutrients and their quantities. Micronutrients are the specific vitamins and minerals that are found in macronutrients.

a. Sodium: Sodium is commonly listed, and it’s important to watch your intake, especially if you have high blood pressure or other sodium-related concerns.

b. Vitamins and minerals: Depending on the food, the label may include information about vitamins (like vitamin A, C, or calcium) and minerals (like iron or potassium).

5. Examine the ingredient list

The ingredient list can provide important information about the food’s composition.

Remember to consider your dietary needs and goals when interpreting the information on a nutrition label. Consulting with a healthcare professional, nutritionist, or registered dietitian can also provide personalized guidance.

Nutrition labels and packaging are meant to be tricky. Today, consumers are more health conscious than ever, making food manufacturers nervous. As a result, they are consistently changing wording, design, or even packaging to hopefully confuse us or convince us that we need the product or want to try it when it is really mislabeled junk food. 

Personal Experience with Reading Nutrition Labels

I have had various experiences reading food labels on my health journey. When I started my weight loss journey in college after gaining over 40 pounds and being in double digit sizes for the first time, calorie counting is what resonated the most with me. It wasn’t about restricting some of my favorite foods, we do live in America after all; home of the SAD diet (standard American diet) that is high in sugars, unhealthy fats, and tons of processed foods and simple carbohydrates. It was about learning what true balance is and allowing myself to have my favorite foods in true moderation as well as eating the appropriate serving size. I remember buying little toddler bowls from the dollar bin at Target to help get my portions under control while learning how many calories were in foods at the same time.

Being able to read and interpret nutrition labels became crucial in the success of my journey. After a while, I memorized how many calories were in my favorite foods as well as what the appropriate serving sizes were and making healthier choices became much easier. Before I knew it, also with consistent exercise, the pounds started to come off. It is helping myself that has lead me on my journey to help others as a clinical nutritionist. 

More Tips on How to Read a Nutrition Label

Here are more tips to interpret these labels so that you have a one up on those food manufacturers and you can be more successful in achieving your wellness goals. 

  1. Don’t believe the hype-front label claims. These are misleading and are there to convince you to buy and are not always true. Research shows that adding health claims to front labels makes people believe a product is healthier than the same product that doesn’t list health claims. 
  2. Become familiar with common ingredients and ingredient lists. These lists go by quantity, from highest to lowest, so when you’re scouring those aisles, keep that in mind. Fun tip: study the first 3 ingredients of the food, these are most likely what much of the food is made up of. If those three are actual whole food ingredients, most likely that food is going to be a healthier choice than its counterparts. 
  3. The most misleading food claims on common processed foods
    1. Light- Light products are processed to reduce either calories or fat. Check these products to see if anything has been added, most likely sugars. 
    2. Multigrain-This sounds healthy, but it only means that a product contains more than one type of grain, and these are most likely refined grains. The product needs to be labeled whole grain for the grains to usually be unrefined in most cases. 
    3. Natural-This is the most common misleading claim made on processed food today that confuses many and helps food manufacturers make their sales goals. This claim DOES NOT mean that the product is natural. Let me say it again for those in the back. Claiming a product that is natural does not necessarily mean it is natural! It just means the manufacturer worked with a natural source ingredient, but that could just be one ingredient. 
    4. No added sugar-Some products contain more sugar than others.  The fact that they don’t have added sugar doesn’t mean they’re healthy. Unhealthy sugar substitutes may also have been added. There are multiple studies that show long term use of sugar substitutes or artificial sugar substitutes can cause a plethora of chronic diseases and put you at a higher risk for stroke, heart disease, or cancer. 
    5. Low-calorie. Low-calorie products must have 1/3 fewer calories than the brand’s original product. Check the fat and the sugar content. Usually these are added for the product to taste the same as its original counterpart. 
    6. Low-fat-Usually means more sugar. Be sure to read that ingredients list. 
    7. Fortified or enriched-Some nutrients have been added to the product. Just because something is fortified doesn’t mean it is healthy.
    8. Gluten-free-Many gluten-free foods are highly processed and loaded with unhealthy fats and sugar. Gluten developing as the 2nd highest food allergen in our country has made gluten-free options very popular. Whole foods and true macronutrient balance with minimal gluten-free processed foods is the key to the success of eating with a gluten sensitivity, intolerance, or full-blown celiac disease. 
    9. Zero trans-fat- Foods with this label have less than 0.5 grams of trans fat per serving. This means if the serving sizes are misleadingly small, the product may still have trans fat in it. Always check those labels! 

Identifying Sugar on a Nutrition Label

Sugar – we all have a love hate relationship with it. Do we remove it completely? Have it in moderation? Some of us feel we cannot control ourselves when it comes to sugar. When that craving comes on, there is no stopping us. We must have that item that we crave immediately. Food manufacturers do their best to further confuse us with all the different names they use for sugars. Just when we think we have it figured out, they are renaming those sugars to continue to confuse and mislead us. 

Here are some common names for sugars and sweeteners that are used today to help you avoid accidentally having too much sugar in your diet. 

  • Types of sugar: brown sugar, beet sugar, coconut sugar, cane sugar, golden sugar, date sugar, organic raw sugar, invert sugar, evaporated cane juice, and confectioner’s sugar.
  • Types of syrup: golden syrup, carob syrup, high fructose corn syrup, agave nectar, honey, maple syrup, malt syrup, oat syrup, rice syrup, and rice bran syrup.
  • Other added sugars: molasses, barley malt, lactose, cane juice crystals, corn sweetener, crystalline fructose, dextran, malt powder, ethyl maltol, fruit juice concentrate, fructose, galactose, glucose, disaccharides, maltodextrin, and maltose.

Wherever you are in your health and wellness journey, being able to correctly read and interpret nutrition labels, as well as recognizing those misleading food labels will take you far and can be used as a valuable tool in your success. As with most things, the more you practice and try to read these labels, the easier it will get. Staying informed as these labels consistently change is key. Always consult your healthcare professional, nutritionist, or registered dietician for more information. You can learn more about nutrition by checking out our Soul Fit Nutrition Coaching options.


About the Author

Amber is a clinical nutritionist and group fitness instructor with an extensive background in dance, nutrition, wellness & fitness. Amber has a master’s degree in Applied Clinical Nutrition from the New York Chiropractic College (2015), has been a dancer for over 30 years & a group fitness instructor since 2009. Learn more about Amber and our other coaches at Feed Your Soul Fitness.

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