• How-To Guide for Reading Food Labels


    The Nutrition Facts panel on food packages tells you everything you need to know about the healthfulness of a product. You just have to know what to look for and how to interpret the information.

    How to Read the Nutrition Facts Panel

    You can start by ignoring the front package of a product, which can mislead you with confusing health claims. It tells you only what the manufacturer wants you to know about the healthfulness of a product.

    "Multigrain" doesn't necessarily mean 100-percent whole-wheat. A "reduced-fat food" doesn't necessarily mean it is a heart-healthy choice. "Fresh," "no additives" and "natural" are also confusing because they don't necessarily indicate that a product is healthy. All of these terms aren't regulated, so manufacturers can use whatever definition they want. The bottom line is they don't necessarily mean that a food is better for you.

    Even when you know to go right to the Nutrition Facts Panel on the side or back of a product, understanding it can still be tricky. When you want to eat for heart health, you know you should be looking at many things: calories, saturated and trans fat, fiber, sodium, etc.  It is easy to accidentally hone in on one part of the label -- for example, sodium -- and forget to look at other parts. Let SecondsCount walk you through the steps to take when reading a Nutrition Facts Panel  with your heart health in mind. 

    1. Recognize Serving Size and Number of Servings per Container
    2. Think About Calories
    3. Limit These Nutrients
    4. Get Enough of These Nutrients
    5. Understand the Footnote at the Bottom of the Nutrition Facts Label
    6. Factor in the Percent Daily Value
    7. Review the Ingredient List

    1. Recognize Serving Size and Number of Servings per Container

    The Serving Size and Number of Servings per Container information is one of the most important things to look at, so start at the top of the Nutrition Facts Panel. This is not necessarily how much you should eat. Rather, it is a standardized serving as a reference, which allows you to compare crackers to crackers, for example. More importantly, it tells you the amount of food the rest of the nutrition information applies to. 

    It can be confusing because sometimes the package is small and seems like one serving, but manufacturers label it two servings. For example, if the servings per container are 2, and the calories are 250, when you eat the whole container, you have to double the calories and everything else on the label to get the accurate nutrition information for the amount you ate.

    2. Think About Calories

    Next, look at calories, which are important if you are trying to lose weight, or even maintain your weight. While it's not always necessary to strictly count calories, some people find it useful to calculate their estimated calorie needs and then keep track of their daily intake. Food labels can help with that. However, even if you're not counting calories every day, looking at the calories listed on a food product can help you decide how often a particular food can fit into your healthy eating plan.

    A good rule of thumb is, if the calories are high-for example more than half the amount of calories you estimate for the whole day-then the particular food is not a good choice on a regular basis. 

    You may want to use the General Guide to Calories, which is defined by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), to help with your decision-making.

    General Guide to Calories

    40 Calories LOW
    100 Calories MODERATE
    400 Calories or more HIGH

    The General Guide to Calories provides a general reference for calories when you look at a Nutrition Facts label. This guide is based on a 2,000 calorie diet.

    3. Limit These Nutrients

    When following heart-healthy guidelines, it is helpful to use the Nutrition Facts Panel to find information about fat, cholesterol and sodium in foods. These are nutrients to limit due to their harmful effects on blood pressure and heart disease risk. 

    • Fat  - Some fats, namely saturated fat and trans fat, are worse than others (mono unsaturated fat and polyunsaturated fat). Too much total fat is also not healthy. So, in full disclosure, you will always see grams of total fat, saturated fat and trans fat listed on a Nutrition Facts Label. This is required by law so that consumers are aware and can choose to avoid products high in total fat, saturated fat and trans fat.

      Sometimes you will also see grams of monounsaturated fat and polyunsaturated fat listed on the label. This is voluntary and usually is listed by a manufacturer to point out when a product has a more healthful fat profile.

      • Saturated Fat - A low-saturated food is defined by the Food and Drug Administration as 1 gram or less per serving and the food must provide less than 15 percent of calories from saturated fat. In general, it's best for heart health to eat foods that are low in saturated fat. But when you eat foods higher in saturated fat, you just need to balance them by eating foods lower in saturated fat for the rest of the day.
      • Trans Fat - No amount of trans fat in the diet is beneficial. Therefore, when a food label indicates "0 grams of trans fat," that's ideal. However, even then a product may still have some trans fat. Manufacturers are allowed to list "0 grams" of trans fat if the product has less than 0.5 grams of trans fat per serving. Some examples are tub margarines or peanut butter. Usually this isn't a problem if you eat one or two servings a day. However, if you were to eat many servings, this amount of trans fat may add up. That's why it's also important to check the ingredient list on a label. If you find partially hydrogenated oil, you know there is some trans fat in a product.
    • Cholesterol - Cholesterol is listed on the label in milligrams. A low cholesterol food is defined by the Food and Drug Administration as 20 milligrams or less per serving. When reading labels, it may be helpful to remember that cholesterol only comes from animal products. You may also see "0 grams" of cholesterol and at first think a product is healthy, but that product may still be high in saturated fat and trans fat.
    • Sodium - Sodium is listed on the label in milligrams. When 1500 milligrams is the limit for people with heart disease, sodium can add up quickly. A low-sodium food is defined by the Food and Drug Administration as 140 milligrams or less per serving.  This can be a helpful frame of reference when deciding if and how a certain product can fit into your healthy eating plan.

    4. Get Enough of These Nutrients

    Most Americans don't get enough dietary fiber, vitamin A, vitamin C, calcium and iron from foods. Of these, dietary fiber is important for heart health. But while following a heart-healthy diet, you don't want to neglect other nutrients important for general health. The Nutrition Facts Panel can help you identify which foods contain some of these important nutrients. 

    • Dietary Fiber - Dietary Fiiber includes both soluble and insoluble fiber and is listed in grams. A high-fiber food is defined by the Food and Drug Administration as 5 grams or more per serving. Most people should aim for about 25 grams of fiber per day.

      It is important to note dietary fiber is listed under Total Carbohydrate. Technically, fiber is considered a carbohydrate even though it is not digested and it provides no calories. The Total Carbohydrate value in grams includes the dietary fiber amount.  For example, if Total Carbohydrate is 15 grams, and dietary fiber is 5 grams, then 5 of the 15 grams of carbohydrate is dietary fiber.

    5. Understand the Footnote at the Bottom of the Nutrition Facts Label

    The footnote on the lower part of the nutrition facts panel tells you that "Percent Daily Values are based on a 2,000 calorie diet." This footnote is the same on every food product, although it may not always have the numerical details below it if a food package is too small to fit it all.

    Health experts have defined Daily Values for certain nutrients, including total fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, sodium, total carbohydrate, dietary fiber, vitamin A, vitamin C, calcium and iron. The Daily Values are the amounts we should aim to consume in a day. Many of them depend on the amount of calories we eat in a day. Each person has different calorie needs, but the label shows two calorie levels as examples: 2,000 and 2500. 

    6. Factor in the Percent Daily Value

    The Percent Daily Value shows you what percentage of a nutrient the food provides. It is based only on a 2,000-calorie diet. Even though not everyone follows a 2,000-calorie diet, the Percent Daily Value can help you determine if a serving of food is high or low in a nutrient. 

    Note that the %DV column doesn't add up vertically to 100%. Rather each nutrient is based on 100% of the daily requirements for that nutrient (for a 2,000-calorie diet).  By looking at the number, you can tell if the food contributes a lot or a little of each of the nutrients you are trying to limit (for example, saturated fat and sodium) or get enough of (for example, dietary fiber and calcium).

    Quick Guide to Percent DV

    • 5 percent or less is LOW
    • 20 percent or more is HIGH

    For example, a one-cup serving of macaroni and cheese provides 18%DV for total fat. This is approaching 20%, which would be considered nearly high. The sodium is 20%DV, which is high. But if you ate both servings in the container, you would have to double the %DV for total fat to 36 and the %DV for sodium to 40. That's more than a third of the fat and sodium you should have in a whole day. That doesn't mean you can't eat it. But when a food you like is high in fat or sodium, you need to balance it with foods that are low in fat and sodium at other times of the day.

    7. Review the Ingredient List

    The ingredients in a food product are listed by weight in decreasing order. This complete list of information is vital to anyone with food allergies. It is also very useful in determining more nutrition information about a food product:

    • If there are more preservatives than identifiable ingredients, a food may be highly processed and, therefore, likely not as healthy as a less processed food.
    • If bread is made with whole-wheat flour as the first and only flour ingredient, it is 100% whole wheat.
    • If a product contains partially hydrogenated oil, this indicates it contains some trans fat despite a label that may say "0 grams" of trans fat.
    • If sugar or high-fructose corn syrup is listed before other more healthful ingredients, such as fruit, this may be a food that is high in calories from sugar and low in other nutrients. Other names for sugar include: corn syrup, maltose, dextrose, sucrose, honey and maple syrup.

    As always, if you need help with your heart-healthy eating plan or reading food labels, ask your doctor for a referral to see a registered dietitian.