Knowledge is power. Whether you’re concerned, curious, and/or motivated to make better choices, knowing how to read a food label on packaged foods is an important tool in your toolbox to improve your health.
Don’t let the information on a food label overwhelm you. Here are 5 simple steps to help you master label reading and make more informed food decisions.
- Ignore front-of-package marketing. Marketing on food packaging is meant to catch your attention and increase food sales, not necessarily educate you on whether the food is actually healthy or not. While the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does regulate health claims that can be listed on food labels, they may still be misleading. For example, breakfast cereals routinely market on the front of the package that they contain whole grains or so many grams of fiber, leading you to feel that the product is healthy. Further investigation of the ingredient list and nutrition fact label may show the product is very high in added sugars and has a long and processed ingredient list. Never trust the front packaging by itself.
- Read the ingredient list first. Choose packaged foods with short lists and those that contain whole-food ingredients. If you have the ingredients in your own pantry or refrigerator, chances are it’s not a highly processed food. Avoid products with any type of sugar in the top 3 ingredients.
- Take note of the serving size & calories. It's easy to glaze over the listed serving size and not calculate the number of calories you are actually eating. If the serving size is ¼ cup granola and you poured yourself 1 cup, make sure to quadruple the calories and all of the listed nutrients!
- Check green light nutrients. Certain nutrients benefit your health like fiber, protein, and unsaturated fats. You typically want these to be higher than the “yellow light” nutrients listed below to optimize your health, weight and nutrition.
- Check yellow light nutrients. Saturated fat, sodium and added sugars need to be consumed in moderation to support you in reaching and maintaining your optimal health. Choose packaged foods more often that are low in yellow light nutrients and high in green light nutrients.
Label reading tips
Beware of the Health Halo Effect
The health halo effect is when people perceive a food is healthy based on descriptions, marketing, price, and/or health claims and feel convinced they will obtain a specific health benefit. How to avoid this trickery? Ignore the front of the package, and always check the ingredients and nutrition facts.
Rule of 5’s
To help minimize blood sugar spikes from packaged foods, follow the 5:5:5 rule. Per serving, aim for 5 or more grams of fiber, 5 or or less grams of sugar, and 5 or more grams of protein.
Margin of Error
While food labels must meet specific criteria and regulations, the FDA does allow up to a 20% margin of error on reported food label data. Eating less packaged foods and more whole foods while tracking your intake is one hack to minimize this margin of error in your own diet.
As of 2020, the FDA now requires added sugars be listed on food labels to help you manage your added sugar intake. Recommended intake is less than 24 grams (6 teaspoons) of added sugar a day for women and children, and 36 grams (9 teaspoons) a day for men. For those following higher calorie diets, a recommendation of less than 10% of calories is also appropriate.
Daily Value (DV)
%DV is listed on a food label to help you understand whether a food’s serving size is high, medium or low in specific nutrients. %DV is represented as a percentage of the nutrient recommendations for a 2,000 calorie diet. If you are following a reduced calorie diet for weight loss, or a higher calorie diet, take note that the %DV may not be accurate for you. Also, depending on your current health status and individual nutrient needs, you may need more or less than the listed %DV.
A 5% DV or less suggests the food’s serving size is low in that nutrient. A 20% DV or higher suggests that food’s serving size is high in that nutrient.
It’s sage advice that a diet consisting primarily of whole foods (that don’t have food labels), rather than packaged, processed and labeled foods, is an ideal approach to superior nutrition and health. While food labels aren’t always 100% accurate, knowing how to read a food label can help you navigate the endless aisles at the grocery store so you can make healthier choices for yourself and your family.