What Are Food Labels Really Telling You?

Reading food labels

Food labels are supposed to help us make better food choices. But for many people, they are like a foreign language. You have to learn how to translate a label to understand it.

Of course, choosing fresh whole foods is the easiest ways to eat better. But many families rely on processed foods for the sake of cost and convenience. The good news is that boxes, bags and cans don’t have to be off-limits. You just need to understand exactly what they contain. That means taking a little time while grocery shopping to read the label.

To make that easier, here’s a quick tutorial on label lingo. We’ll break down the most important details on a food label, and we’ll explain what they really mean.

Serving size and servings per container

Pay close attention to what the label says as a serving size. Chances are, you are eating more than a single helping. Get familiar with what a suggested serving looks like for things you eat on a regular basis, especially snacks and treats. (Let’s be honest. When’s the last time anyone stopped scooping at a half cup of ice cream?) If a single serving is not enough, fill up the rest of your plate with fruits and vegetables. This way you won’t feel deprived.

Calories per serving

Once you know how big a serving size should be, find out how many calories it has. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration says that adult men need 2,400 to 2,800 calories per day. Adult women need 2,000 to 2,200. These numbers may be higher or lower based on your own personal health, age, weight and physical-activity level. Tracking how many calories you take in can help you judge what and how much to eat.

Fat

Not all fats are the same. The total fat listed on a food label includes unsaturated fats, saturated fats and trans fats. You should limit saturated fats. You should try to avoid trans fats completely. But you don’t have to shun unsaturated fats. They are good for you. They include olive oil, avocados and nuts. Just take note of the serving sizes to make sure you’re not overdoing it on calories.

Sodium and sugar

Many processed foods are high in salt and sugar. This can negatively impact health conditions like high blood pressure, diabetes and heart disease. Also watch out for the terms high-fructose corn syrup, dextrose and evaporated cane sugar. These all describe high-calorie added sweeteners.

Fiber

Plant-based fiber fills you up. It also supports good digestive health. The American Heart Association says to eat 25 grams per day. Good sources are beans, nuts and legumes, whole grains and dried fruits. Fresh, frozen and canned vegetables are great, too.

Vitamins and minerals

Food labels show the vitamins and minerals a food contains per serving. Fruits and vegetables are often frozen quickly after they’re picked. They keep many nutritional benefits. They may also be cheaper than fresh fruits and vegetables.

Ingredients

Check for words like whole grains, proteins, fruits and vegetables. These are good to have. See if it contains a lot of chemical additives, preservatives, artificial colors and flavors or other ingredients you can’t pronounce. If it does, you may want to leave it on the shelf.