Food labels give you information about the calories, number of servings, and nutrient content of packaged foods. Reading the labels can help you make healthy choices when you shop.
About Food Labels
Food labels tell you the nutrition facts about the foods you buy. Use the food labels to help you choose healthier foods.
What to Look for
Always check the serving size first. All the information on the label is based on the serving size. Many packages contain more than 1 serving.
For example, the serving size for spaghetti is most often 2 ounces (56 grams) uncooked, or 1 cup (0.24 liters) cooked. If you eat 2 cups (0.48 liters) at a meal, you are eating 2 servings. That is 2 times the amount of the calories, fats, and other nutrients listed on the label.
Calorie information tells you the number of calories in 1 serving. Adjust the number of calories if you eat smaller or larger portions. This number helps determine how foods affect your weight.
The total carbs (carbohydrates) are listed in bold letters to stand out and are measured in grams (g). Sugar, starch, and dietary fiber make up the total carbs on the label. Sugar is listed separately. All of these carbs except fiber can raise your blood sugar.
If you have diabetes and count carbs to calculate your insulin doses, the American Diabetes Association recommends that you use the total carbs to calculate your insulin doses. Some people may get better results by subtracting some or all of the dietary fiber grams from the carb count.
Dietary fiber is listed just below total carbs. Buy foods with at least 3 to 4 grams of fiber per serving. Whole-grain breads, fruits and vegetables, and beans and legumes are high in fiber.
Check the total fat in 1 serving. Pay special attention to the amount of saturated fat in 1 serving.
Choose foods that are low in saturated fat. For example, drink skim or 1% milk instead of 2% or whole milk. Skim milk has only a trace of saturated fat. Whole milk has 5 grams of this fat per serving.
Fish is much lower in saturated fat than beef. Three ounces (84 grams) of fish has less than 1 gram of this fat. Three ounces (84 grams) of hamburger has more than 5 grams.
If a food has less than 0.5 grams of saturated fat in the serving size on the label, the food maker can say it contains no saturated fat. Remember this if you eat more than 1 serving.
You should also pay attention to trans fats on any food label. These fats raise "bad" cholesterol and lower your "good" cholesterol.
These fats are mostly found in snack foods and desserts. Many fast food restaurants use trans fats for frying.
If a food has these fats, the amount will be listed on the label under total fat. They are measured in grams. Look for foods that have no trans fats or are low in them (1 gram or less).
Sodium is the main ingredient of salt. This number is important for people who are trying to get less salt in their diet. If a label says that a food has 100 mg of sodium, this means it has about 250 mg of salt. You should eat no more than 2,300 mg of sodium per day. This is the amount of sodium that is in 1 measuring teaspoon of table salt. Ask your health care provider if you should have even less.
The % daily value is included on the label as a guide.
The percentage for each item on the label is based on eating 2,000 calories a day. Your goals will be different if you eat more or fewer calories a day. A dietitian or your provider can help you set your own nutrition goals.
Nutrition - reading food labels; Diabetes - reading food labels; Hypertension - reading food labels; Fats - reading food labels; Cholesterol - reading food labels; Weight loss - reading food labels; Obesity - reading food labels
American Diabetes Association website. Making sense of food labels. www.diabetes.org/nutrition/understanding-food-labels/making-sense-of-food-labels. Accessed October 7, 2020.
Eckel RH, Jakicic JM, Ard JD, et al. 2013 AHA/ACC guideline on lifestyle management to reduce cardiovascular risk: a report of the American College of Cardiology/American Heart Association Task Force on practice guidelines. J Am Coll Cardiol. 2014;63(25 Pt B):2960-2984. PMID: 24239922 pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/24239922/.
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Hensrud DD, Heimburger DC. Nutrition's interface with health and disease. In: Goldman L, Schafer AI, eds. Goldman-Cecil Medicine. 26th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2020:chap 202.
US Department of Agriculture and US Department of Health and Human Services. Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2020-2025. 9th ed. www.dietaryguidelines.gov/sites/default/files/2020-12/Dietary_Guidelines_for_Americans_2020-2025.pdf. Updated December 2020. Accessed December 30, 2020.
Victor RG, Libby P. Systemic hypertension: management. In: Zipes DP, Libby P, Bonow RO, Mann DL, Tomaselli GF, Braunwald E, eds. Braunwald's Heart Disease: A Textbook of Cardiovascular Medicine. 11th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2019:chap 47.
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Review Date 7/13/2020
Updated by: David C. Dugdale, III, MD, Professor of Medicine, Division of General Medicine, Department of Medicine, University of Washington School of Medicine, Seattle WA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, Brenda Conaway, Editorial Director, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.