When looking at food labels, what's the first thing I should look at?

Ximena Jimenez
Nutrition & Dietetics
You want to get fiber, minerals and vitamins from crackers and watch out for portion size, sodium, and fat.

Aim for 2 grams of fiber or more, 3 grams of fat and 1 gram of saturated fat. Look for low sodium crackers and snacks.

Remember portion control when eating those crackers or snacks.
Reading food labels can help you make healthy food choices. When reading food labels, look for key words and health claims that fit the requirements of your eating plan. For example, look first for foods labeled "high fiber" or "reduced sodium." Even more important, pay close attention to the ingredients list and to the "Nutrition Facts" label.

Look for the following on food labels:
  • Serving size: Is the serving size appropriate for you? If the amount you eat is different, you'll need to adjust the calorie and nutrition values to fit that amount.
  • Calories: Different people need a different number of calories each day. Look here to see how a serving adds to your daily count.
  • Percent daily value: The daily values on food labels are listed for people who should consume 2,000 calories per day. Your daily values may be different.
  • Total fat: Aim low here. For heart-healthier eating, choose foods lower in total fat. Beware of entrees that have more than 10 grams of fat per serving or other foods that have more than 3 grams of fat. Notice that polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats are included under "Total Fat" but are not listed separately.
  • Saturated fat: Eat as little of this as possible. Saturated fat raises blood cholesterol.
  • Trans fat: Eat as little of this as possible. Trans fat raises blood cholesterol and lowers high density lipoprotein (HDL), or "good," cholesterol.
  • Cholesterol: Too much cholesterol can lead to heart disease. Aim for 200 milligrams (mg) a day or less.
  • Sodium: Most of us consume far more sodium (salt) than we need -- and prepared and processed foods can be the cause. Aim for 1,500 mg a day or less.
  • Dietary fiber: Aim for 25 to 30 grams of fiber each day, with most of this coming from whole grains.
  • Sugars: Compare the sugar grams with the total carbohydrate grams. If the numbers are close to the same, the product is high in sugar, and not the best choice.
Be aware that even though a food label may list "0 grams" per portion size, there still may be some of that nutrient in the food. For example, a label for a nonstick spray may define a portion as three sprays and list "0 grams" of total fat in each portion -- but if you use more than three sprays, you may be getting some fat after all.
Marilyn Ricci, M.S., R.D.
Nutrition & Dietetics

I always look at serving size. The nutrition information is based on the serving size. For example, a jar of dry roasted peanuts may give a  serving size of 1 oz (about 1/4 cup). This has 160 calories. If you normally eat 1/2 cup, then you must double the calories, the fat, etc. 

Lyn Turton
Nutrition & Dietetics
Looking at the ingredients label will give you a good idea if this is a food you want to eat. Ingredients are listed in descending order of weight, for example, if sugar is listed within the first few ingredients it will be a high sugar food. Don't rely on claims on the front of the packet which may be misleading.

The ingredients label will also tell you other contents in the food including additives & preservatives.

The nutritional information that is important to you will depend on your health goals but  reading the suggested serving size & calories per serving and looking at the fat, sugar, sodium & fibre content is useful.
Stefanie Sacks, MS
Nutrition & Dietetics
When looking at food labels, the ingredients tell the true story of your food; foods should have 5-7 ingredients that are whole, real foods with names you know. Watch as culinary nutritionist Stefanie Sacks, shares her tips for reading food labels. 
Heidi Skolnik, MS
Sports Medicine
About 50% of people read food labels but only about ¼ of those who do know what they mean!!! It can be confusing. If I had to narrow it down to a few points I want you to notice it is this: calories AND then notice what a serving size is. If the serving is say, 7 chips but you eat 21 chips (or a whole bag), you need to multiply the calories by the number of servings you eat -- even if you eat them at one time as one portion. Another example are muffins. You may look at the label on lager muffin and it may say 250 calories. Sounds OK, reasonable, until you notice there are 3 servings to that one muffin. That means 750 calories! 2 eggs, toast, and an orange are only 260 calories!!

Second, look at the fiber. It is usually a good indicator of the wholeness of the food. Look for 2 grams of fiber or more per serving. The tricky thing here is that the best sources of fiber do not have labels -- whole fruit and vegetables. Whole grains will have fiber so it becomes apparent which really are whole grain by looking at fiber content. Of course, reading the ingredient list will also let you know: the ingredients are listed from highest to lowest. Whatever is listed in the first three spaces is what you are eating the most of. Do you want sugar to be the number one ingredient in what you are purchasing?

The last point -- do think about the context of how you are eating the food. For example, olive oil is one of the healthiest fats. By looking solely at the label for calories, fiber (none) and grams of fat, you would pass it by. Remember, of course, you are not eating a meal of olive oil, you are using it as part of, hopefully, a delectable meal of vegetables, lean protein and portion controlled starch (A cup of pasta with spinach and shrimp or roasted vegetables with wild salmon and a sweet potato or…?). Same for cheese, are you eating 1 oz. with an apple for a healthy snack or are you saturating a fried and breaded veal patty for a double dose of fat and calories and more protein than needed in a day at one meal?!
Food labels provide information on how the food fits into a nutritious daily diet. If you're losing weight with Weight Watchers, you'll want to pay attention to serving size, protein, total carbohydrate, total fat, and fiber.

Serving size is what the U.S. Food and Drug Administration says is a standard serving. Remember that the amount of nutrients is given per serving, and servings are often a fraction of the package contents. Check the servings per container on the label.

Percent of daily value (%DV) indicates how much of each nutrient one serving provides as part of a 2,000-calorie diet. If you eat 1,200 or 3,000 calories a day, this percentage would be adjusted up or down. Five percent or less of the %DV is considered low, whereas 20% or more is considered high.

Here are some things to look for on food labels:
  • Choose foods lower in fat. If the main source of fat is saturated, look for similar foods that are higher in unsaturated fats.
  • Good sources of fiber have at least 2.5 grams of fiber per serving.
  • When comparing similar foods, choose the one that has less sodium.
  • Look for foods that keep sugars low relative to total carbohydrate and fiber.
  • Check listings for  vitamin C, vitamin A, calcium, and iron, and sometimes additional vitamins and minerals. Look for foods that provide micronutrients to your diet. 
  • When shopping for grains, check ingredient labels and choose foods that list whole grains as the first ingredient.
Weight Watchers can help you lose weight and keep it off.

Weight Watchers offers a comprehensive approach to weight loss that can help you reach your goals.
Laura Motosko, MSEd, RD
Nutrition & Dietetics
First, look at the ingredients of the food which are listed in order of greatest quantity to least amount contained in the food. Choose whole grains, fruits, vegetables, healthy fats such as olive oil, proteins including lean meat, fish, poultry, and nuts, legumes, beans, soy or dairy with less added ingredients.

Next, check out the serving size on a label and how many servings are contained in the package. Estimate how many servings are in the portion of food that you are eating. Then check out the total calories and grams of fat per serving to know the amount of calories and fat you will be eating.

Last, the Percent Daily Values (DV) will tell you how much of a percent of a nutrient is in that food as compared to the average amount recommended for a 2,000 calorie diet for the whole day. Look for less than 5% of calories for total fat, saturated fat, cholesterol and sodium. A food is high in a particular vitamin, mineral or nutrient if it is greater than 20%.
Deborah Beauvais
Nutrition & Dietetics
Start with the Serving Size
  • Look here for both the serving size (the amount for one serving), and the number of servings in the package.
  • Remember to check your portion size to the serving size listed on the label. If the label serving size is one cup, and you eat two cups, you are getting twice the calories, fat and other nutrients listed on the label.
Check Out the Total Calories and Fat
  • Find out how many calories are in a single serving and the number of calories from fat. It’s smart to cut back on calories and fat if you are watching your weight!
Let the Percent Daily Values Be Your Guide

Use percent Daily Values (DV) to help you evaluate how a particular food fits into your daily meal plan:
  • Daily Values are average levels of nutrients for a person eating 2,000 calories a day. A food item with a 5% DV means 5% of the amount of fat that a person consuming 2,000 calories a day would eat.
  • Remember: percent DV are for the entire day — not just for one meal or snack.
  • You may need more or less than 2,000 calories per day. For some nutrients you may need more or less than 100% DV.
The High and Low of Daily Values
  • 5 percent or less is low -- try to aim low in total fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, and sodium
  • 20 percent or more is high -- try to aim high in vitamins, minerals and fiber
For more information on reading the Nutrition Facts Food Label, talk to the nutrition expert a registered dietitian or visit the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics website

The first thing I like to look at on a food label is the serving size or servings per container. If a serving size is 100 calories and there are 2 servings per package and you eat the whole package you have consumed 200 calories not 100 calories. I find this is something that is overlooked by many clients I work with. The serving size will also help you determine all the other nutrition info…if you are eating 2 servings then you need to double all the nutrition information!  

Dr. Michael Roizen, MD
Internal Medicine
I don't want you to spend more time in the store than you did in freshman economics class. If you haven't inspected labels before, it'll just take some time before you know exactly how to ID the nutritional heroes and the imposters. I also don't want you to be a paranoid shopper about eating -- some dangerous-sounding foods like walnut or peanut butter or even honey (less than 4 grams per serving here) are okay in moderation.

However, it's easy to spot some common culprits on food labels, and to steer clear of them. These tips will help.

Don't buy foods where high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) or more than 5 gm per serving of another simple sugar, enriched flour, or more than 5 gm per serving of a saturated at is one of the first five ingredients, or is greater than the recommended; 5 gm or less per serving that would fill you up (satiate you). You're avoiding simple sugars in foods not just because of the calories, but also because it causes highs and lows in blood sugar that put you into a cycle of craving more high-calorie foods.

Be on the lookout for "cheat words" in the ingredient list. These words don't scream "imminent heart attack!" as clearly as some other words may, but they are dangerous all the same. Some notable clues to really watch for:

For sugar: Dextrose, sucrose, or anything with "ose." And mannitol, or anything with "ol." Those are alcohols that are quickly converted to sugar. Stay away from foods that have more than 4 grams of sugar in them. Even natural sugars like maple syrup and molasses are sugar, so you should also keep them to less than 4 grams per serving, unless it's pure fruit (I make that exception because fruit has so many nutrients).

For fats: Besides saturated fats (less than 4 grams per serving) and trans fats (avoid them all), you should avoid foods with other fat code words, like partially hydrogenated, palm, and coconut oil.
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Alberta Scruggs
Nutrition & Dietetics
There are three sections to a food label.

The top section provides the serving size, how many servings are in the container and the kcalorie amount per serving.

The middle section provides information about the nutrients in the product and their amounts. For instance, there are specific dietary recommendations for cholesterol (<300 mg/d), total fat (25-35% a day), saturated fat (<7%) and sodium (<2,300 mg/d for most healthy populations), that help reduce risks of conditions such as heart disease, obesity, diabetes, etc. This section informs the consumer whether the contents adhere or exceed such recommendations. Other nutrients listed include the amount of vitamin C, vitamin A, calcium and iron.

The bottom section provides information about daily values based on a 2,000 kcalorie diet. Remember this:
  • A nutrient that has a daily value of 5% or less is considered a low-content nutrient.
  • A nutrient that has a daily value of 5%-9% is considered a moderate-content nutrient.
  • A nutrient that has a daily value of 10%-19% is considered a moderately-high content nutrient.
  • A nutrient with a daily value over 20% is considered a high content nutrient.
You want to choose foods that have a low to moderate daily value percentage when it comes to fat, sodium and cholesterol, and foods that have a moderately high to high daily value percentage when it comes to fiber, vitamin C, calcium and iron.
When choosing crackers or snack foods look for whole grains listed first on the label and 2 grams or less of fat per serving. Consider pretzels or plain popcorn (air popped, with no cheese or butter, 2 grams of fat or less per serving) as low-fat snacks. Check sodium content and try to stay under 400 milligrams per serving.
Toby Smithson
Nutrition & Dietetics
For people with diabetes, the grams of total carbohydrate are an important piece of the label. This is helpful especially if you are counting your carbohydrate. If you are counting carb choices, a good rule of thumb is that 15 grams of carbohydrate = one serving of carbohydrate. Remember to check the portion size which will be the number of carbohydrates the label is referencing. If a label states 30 grams of carbohydrate that would tell you it would be 2 carb choices or 30 grams of carbs. If a product has 5 grams of fiber or more, you can subtract half the fiber from the total grams of carbohydrate. Two additional areas of the label important to people with diabetes is the total fat grams (want to keep this low for heart disease prevention) and sodium (1500 milligrams/day is the limit for people with diabetes).
Although registered dietitians often recommend that people primarily shop around the periphery of the grocery store (where fresh produce is typically located), it's important to check the nutrition label on any prepackaged food items. Evaluating the nutrition facts of food products can help you make better decisions for your overall wellness.

One of the most important things to check on the label is the number of calories. Remember that this is expressed per serving, and a food package may contain many servings. Be aware that if you consume more than one serving, you’re consuming more calories.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.