Would you believe me if I told you that the simplest tool to help you understand nutrition is often right in front of you? One way to get back to basics of understanding what’s in your food is with the help of a nutrition label. It’s important to know how to read a nutrition label, which shows up on the back of any packaged food (produce, protein, snacks, etc.), because it is full of helpful information.
The idea that you can be an advocate for your health by understanding how food impacts it is an incredibly powerful one. As a consumer, it often starts with reviewing a nutrition label, something that I’ve found is underused with my clients and in my work with nutrition programs for firefighters, to the point where I even wrote an article about it with Firehouse Magazine, titled Understanding Nutrition Labels. Instead of making nutrition complicated, let’s simplify it and see what we can learn from a nutrition label below.
How to Read a Nutrition Label
Nutrition labels provide us with information as to how a food can fit within a balanced diet and lifestyle at a glance. Be a powerful consumer by understanding what’s in your food and how it impacts your health! It all starts with your nutrition label.
Here’s What We Can Learn From a Nutrition Label
- Calories (energy provided by the food consumed for one serving)
- Serving size (defined amount of food listed; note that this is different than portion, which is the amount of food you actually eat)
- Macronutrients (carbohydrates, fats, and protein)
- Micronutrients (specific vitamins and minerals)
- Cholesterol (dietary cholesterol)
- Sodium (sodium content)
- Fiber (form of carbohydrate; associated with various health benefits, such as weight management, satiety, digestion, and heart health)
- Sugar (total amount of sugar within a product in grams, as well as “added sugar” in grams; these numbers allow you to understand what products have naturally occurring sugars compared to other products that have sugar that’s been added in)
- Ingredients present (list of ingredients, listed in order of volume from greatest to least)
- Certifications (standards for certain dietary restrictions, agricultural practices, or work conditions of employees; example: “organic”)
- Allergen statement (includes common food allergens contained within the product; transparent information for those with allergies or dietary restrictions)
General Rule of Thumb to Help You Simplify Nutrition and Eat a Balanced and Healthy Diet When Using Nutrition Labels
Check your ingredients!
- If you can’t pronounce it, it’s probably a filler, preservative, or a sugar.
- Fun fact: if it ends in “ose” or “ol”, or is followed by the word syrup or sugar, then it’s a form of added sugar.
- Sugar: when in doubt, aim for < 9g added sugar per serving.
- To calculate how many teaspoons of added sugar are in a product divide the number of grams of added sugar by 4.
- Fun fact: whole foods usually don’t have labels.
Do you read nutrition labels? If so, what do you pay attention to when doing so? If not, maybe you might start…
This is so helpful! Curious to know more about the breakdown of fats on the nutrition label. I’ve heard that saturated fat is the “bad” fat, but what are the benefits/cons of polyunsaturated vs. monounsaturated?
Great to hear this is helpful! You raise a great question here, and I think it’s important to keep in mind that education on fats (their types, food source, if they’re refined or not, the ratio of different types of fat out of your entire diet) really matters here. Saturated fats can have a place in a healthy and balanced diet within reason and from natural sources that are minimally processed; what tends to get overlooked with saturated fats are the other ingredients that usually come with some foods that are high in saturated fat (ex: sweets). Monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats come from nuts, seeds, fish (ex: omega 3’s), and vegetables. Although they are grouped within this “good fat” title, not all are created equal. Examples of benefits studied revolve around heart and brain health; whereas potential cons look at mixed evidence surrounding highly processed (refined) vegetable oils and inflammation. Going to refer you to page 10 of Fast Food Reinvented as well for more detailed information! Here if you have any further questions.
Thank you so much for such a thorough reply! I will definitely check out FFR’s info on it.
You’re very welcome! Here if you have any questions — you can leave them or email 🙂
I totally have a screen shot of this on my phone, the section telling me what in the world the sugars actually mean!
This is awesome! Thank you for sharing this.
I wish I had had this as a resource in my 20s. Would have been such a helpful thing to have. It’s crazy how this everyday knowledge is so often missed. Thanks for sharing!
I’m hoping this is helpful moving forward! Glad to hear that you’re into this simplified approach to understanding how to read a nutrition label. Thank you for reading!
This is so helpful, thank you. I’m having to carefully read labels due to allergies. Not sure about gums, if some are ok, or if they are all bad.
So happy to hear this is helpful. Gums are usually added to food for texture as an emulsifier, thickener, or stabilizer. Although generally recognized as safe, some have been shown to impact GI distress. I would suggest looking into gums and do an assessment of how or if they impact your health.
This is definitely helpful information! I’ve gotten really good at reading labels looking for food allergy info, but I admit I’m just beginning to pay attention to macros. Especially added sugars and protein, since I eat way too much sugar and not enough protein.
Happy to hear this is helpful for you, Stephanie!
I love the easy to understand breakdown. I used to teach a math and nutrition club when I first started teaching middle school, I wish I had this image to use with them then.
Thank you! Nutrition can be a confusing topic, and I’m over here trying to simplify a powerful tool that can be used to understand what’s in our food and how it impacts our health. That club sounds like something I’d join in a second if it was available growing up!
I love how useful and educational your posts are. Thank you for taking the time to post in such detail.
Thank you for this feedback! It is so appreciated.
Hey Dana! I have a newly gluten free kiddo. Can you tell me what all to watch for when picking goods for her?! We try to go for whole foods first, but she’s a kid (!) and some packaged food is inevitable. She battles a constantly upset stomach and we’re trying to troubleshoot some things before going to a gastro and signing up for invasive tests and “take this and see if it helps meds”.
There are a few tips here when following a gluten free diet and checking out labels (celiac.org has a detailed PDF that might be helpful for you), including checking ingredient list, allergy information, and certifications. Many brands are starting to use certifications (“certified gluten free”), or share if their products may contain gluten or made on equipment that shares gluten, etc. Knowing derivatives of gluten containing grains is also an important one. When in doubt, you can always search the manufacturer to inquire. Another idea is to check out websites that share GF snacks by brand, an example being Beyond Celiac.org. Some great news is there are lots of options here to find GF snacks that work for you here.
This is so informative!
This is such important information! So many people don’t know what they are purchasing.
You can learn so much from a nutrition label, even just the ingredients. I’m a big fan of sharing this information to give power to the consumer, if and when interested.
Nutrition labels have come a long, long way in the last couple decades! They are much easier to use these days – especially for medical purposes. I love the shift to including per serving and per package nutrition info on things now. I have to count carbs and sugar for insulin dosing, and have definitely been tripped up on how big a serving is, which can have a big impact on dosing. The 2 sets of numbers help double check that you realize how much you’re eating and makes doing the math a little easier. And allergy info is so much easier to find these days too!
I’m with you — they’ve come a long way, and I think the transparency and clarity has improved over the years (still room for further improvement here in my opinion). You bring up such a great point for use of a nutrition label here for your health, and I’m happy to hear that improvements have been helpful for you! Thank you for sharing, Jess!
It amazes me how many don’t even bother to look at the labels when buying things. Or how much a serving size is.
I showed my 8 year old how to see how much protein and sugar items have so she can be aware and pick healthier snacks (not that we don’t allow treats) but so she is educated. Also had to do the same for my husband haha!
There is so much you can learn from a nutrition label, and more often than many think, it tends to be a 50/50 split for reading a label. It’s come a long way from where it once was, with a goal to be relevant, helpful, and easier to understand for those who use it or want to use it.
Excellent and very informative read! I or for that matter, most of people do not care what is written on the back of the product in small letters. I am glad you have explained it all so nicely and help us become more informed consumers.
John Gatesby recently posted…Hypermobility Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome and the Parasympathetic and Sympathetic Nervous Systems
Sooo an informative post. Not many people actually read the nutrition label, which is not a good idea actually. Your post is just awesome and I always keep updated on your post. This nutrition label is also required when you want to follow a balanced diet and keep healthy. Kudos to you for this. Much love.
Thanks for reading and commenting, Waniya! Glad this information is helpful. Reading a nutrition label is one of the best ways you can be educated on what you’re eating (if it’s in a package).