Plate-Wise •  8/9/2021

What food labels are really telling you

Something went wrong. Please try again later...
Drawing of a woman looking at a food label.

There are a lot of buzzwords used on packaged foods today. While a food labeled “low sodium” or “packed with whole grains” may grab your attention, it’s worth scanning the nutritional facts label to better understand how these foods really stack up nutritionally.

To help provide guidance around what to look for when reading a label, we consulted registered dietitian Olivia Johnson. In her job, Olivia has coached literally hundreds of people on how to read food labels to better understand a food’s nutritional benefits. Here are her tips on six areas to review on a U.S. food label — from the top of the label to bottom — to help gauge whether a food contributes to your family’s nutritional needs. 

6 areas to read on U.S. food labels

  1. Review the serving size. In 2016, when the U.S. changed requirements on nutrition facts labels, one of the changes was updating serving sizes to be more realistic to what people typically eat. This should be your first stop in your label scan to understand what a serving size looks like. And remember that the numbers below would change based on the serving you consume (for example, if you typically eat two servings of crackers, you’d need to double the numbers that follow).
  2. Check the calories. While I don’t encourage people to count calories, I do encourage them to review the overall calorie count to see what nutritional value a food provides. It’s important to generally consider how many calories a food will provide so you can determine how that food fits into your meal and snack pattern throughout the day.
  3. Consider total fat. The next stop on the label is fat — which is typically a calorie-heavy nutrient. A significant body of evidence tell us that some fats are better than others. Here’s how you can flag if a food is less nutritional in terms of fat:
    • Saturated fats/trans fats: These are the less nutritional fats. For these, I’d recommend you staying as close to zero as possible because they’re associated with an increased risk of heart disease.
    • Unsaturated fats: These are the more heart-healthy types of fat. Because fat is more calorie-dense, foods with unsaturated fats can help you stay fuller for longer, especially when paired with a food that is high in fiber.
  4. Scan for sodium. Dietary guidelines for the United States note that people should have 2,300 mg — the equivalent of one teaspoon — or less of sodium each day. This helps prevent high blood pressure and is more heart healthy. According to the guidelines, 140 mg is the criteria for labels saying that they’re low sodium. If you’re constantly choosing foods under this amount, you should be able to stay under the daily limit. When it comes to kids and sodium, less is more!
  5. Review the different types of carbohydrates. I counsel people not to look at the total carbs, but the callouts underneath that figure, particularly:
    • Fiber: A food that’s high in fiber is good for you and your family, as it helps prevent constipation (especially in kids) and high cholesterol.
    • Added sugar: There are good, natural sugars in fruits, vegetables, dairy and grains. The added sugars total is where you should focus though, as it’s recommended that this amount be 10% of your total calories for the day, or less. You’ll want to keep kids’ added sugar to less than 25 grams per day.
  6. Look at the ingredients list. This is ultimately where you should look to verify claims on the front of the package and see if they make sense. Remember that the first thing on the list is the highest portion of that food and the last item is the lowest. For instance, if a food is claiming it is high in protein, this is where to check and see what on the ingredients list is contributing to that claim.


Scanning these six areas can help you get a better grasp on what foods are the right fit for your family. For more information on reading labels, click here

Check out more from Plate-Wise!

Read more posts about healthy eating here.