You’re in the grocery store, debating between Granola Bar #1 and Granola Bar #2. One claims to be organic; the other is sugar-free and labeled “high protein.” How do you know which to choose? We’re often faced with choices of which product is healthiest. Learning how to read nutrition labels the smart way will help you decipher what your best choice is.
To begin with, it’s important to explain that all nutrition labels are based on a 2,000 calorie diet. The percentages you see next to nutrients is what percentage of your recommended Daily Value (DV) the food contains. If you eat more or fewer than 2,000 calories, that percentage will be affected. One of the best ways to use the DV percentages is looking at how high or low a number is. If a nutrient is 5% or less of your DV, then the food is low in that nutrient. If a nutrient is 20% or more, then it’s high in that nutrient. Some things it’s good to be high in (fiber, for example) so you’ll be looking for higher numbers, while other things (such as fat or sodium) you want to look for the lowest number possible.
With that in mind, here is how to read nutrition labels:
The first part of the label you want to read is the serving size information. It’s right at the top, and will tell you how large a serving is and how many are in the package. The nutrition information below is based on a single serving, so it’s good to wrap your head around just how much food that means. Some serving sizes are much smaller than the amount you would actually consume in a sitting.
Rule of thumb: Get a mental picture of how large a serving is and think about how many servings you would eat as you read the nutrition information.
Next, move on to looking at the calorie information. This is usually the first part of a label our eyes jump to, but it should always be read in context of the serving size. According to the FDA, 40 calories is low, 100 calories is moderate, 400 calories or more is high1. Next to the calories is a number listing how many of those calories come from fat. This is an important number to watch. To lose weight, you should keep your calories from fat at about 35% of your total calories. Your food choices should reflect that. In other words, a 100 calorie portion should have 35 calories from fat.
Rule of thumb: Watch the ratio of calories and calories from fat. Also keep in mind that if a food is really nutrient-dense, the nutrition in the food could easily outweigh a higher calorie count.
We need some fat in our diet, but not too much. Ideally, you want foods with no trans fats and little saturated fats. Polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats – in moderation – are the healthy kind you want in your diet. It’s important to note that if a food has less than .5 grams of trans fat, the label can say it has 0 grams of trans fat. So how do you know for sure? By reading the ingredients list and looking for partially hydrogenated oils of any kind.
Rule of thumb: Look for low-fat foods with no trans fat or partially hydrogenated oils that are also low in saturated fat.
You can’t avoid it completely, but you should limit how much is in your diet – especially if you have or are at risk for heart disease.
Rule of thumb: You should only have 300mg of cholesterol a day, so watch the DV percentage closely.
This is a sneaky ingredient that can be excessively high in the foods you would least expect – like salad dressing, cereal, and candy bars. The daily recommended amount of sodium is 2,300 mg, although many health experts advise only eating half that amount or less each day.
Rule of thumb: A reasonable amount of sodium in a food is about 5% of your DV.
Again, carbs are a necessary part of our diet but since it’s really easy to way overdo them, it’s important to make sure the quality of your carbs is high. Nutrition labels list how many total carbohydrates are in a food, but also list how many of those carbs come from sugar and how many come from fiber. You want foods with a good fiber to sugar ratio: high in fiber and low in sugar
Rule of thumb: If you subtract the amount of fiber and sugar from the total carbs, you’ll get a good idea of how many complex carbs are in the food. A high number means there are more complex carbs, which is good.
We’re supposed to have around 25 grams of fiber a day, but for many people this is a hard number to attain.
Rule of thumb: A good whole grain food should have about 3 grams of fiber per serving.
It comes in many forms, from high fructose corn syrup to organic cane sugar to honey. At the end of the day it’s all sugar. Don’t be fooled: just because something is made with honey or maple syrup, it could still have unnecessarily high amounts of sugar.
Rule of thumb: Read your labels. Sometimes sugar is added to low-fat foods to add flavor and can hide in unexpected places. Remember that 4g of sugar equals about 1 teaspoon.
If you’re trying to lose weight, this is an especially important number to look at. Many foods claiming to be “protein bars” or “high in protein” are actually not at all.
Rule of thumb: A good source of protein will be 8-10% of your DV. If you’re looking for a high-protein food, it should be in the double-digits of protein per serving.
Vitamins and minerals
At the bottom of a nutrition label are the DV’s for common vitamins and minerals. Typically included in the list are Vitamin A, Vitamin C, calcium, and iron. These are just good numbers to pay attention to, as they can help you chose one food over another to round out your nutrition better.
Rule of thumb: If a food has 10-19% of a nutrient per serving, it’s considered to be high in that nutrient.
This is really important. Foods are listed by quantity, with the first ingredient being the largest amount used in the food. Red flags are any form of sugar or sweetener listed in the top few ingredients, hydrogenated oils, enriched flours, or any sweeteners ending in –ose.
Rule of thumb: Ideally, you want foods with as short an ingredient list as possible mostly made up of words you can pronounce, indicating it’s made of real, minimally processed foods.
Learning how to read nutrition labels might seem overwhelming, but with a few tricks up your sleeve, it’ll soon come second nature to know what to look for and what to avoid in the foods you buy.