Dietitians Explain What Food Labels Reveal about Nutrition

Dietitians Explain What Food Labels Reveal about Nutrition

food labelsHealth

Food labels aren’t exciting to read,  but they help you make healthy food choices for your family. Here’s a quick guide on reading food labels and what they tell you about the food you’re buying.

Food label history

Early food labels contained little information. Dietitians explain that first-generation food labels mandated that some foods display “specialty dietary uses”  for people with health conditions. This was usually only the calorie and sodium content.  Meals were typically prepared at home and were made from scratch, so was no need for nutritional information. With the increase in processed foods, people wanted to understand better the foods they were buying. In 1970, in response to consumers’ requests, the FDA developed a system for labeling foods. Food labels have evolved over the years with changes in format and content.

The FDA requires that food labels must contain. The National Institutes of Health provides this sample label:


food labels

  • Serving size
  • Calories
  • Carbohydrates
  • Total fat
  • Saturated fats
  • Trans fats
  • Cholesterol
  • Sodium

What other information is on food labels?

Package labels also include other information about vitamins, minerals, or other food items consumers should know.


Sugars are listed under the carbohydrates along with fiber content. Foods like candy, soda, and snack foods contain a lot of added sugar. High-fiber fruits and vegetables contain only natural sugar.


The label will also list protein under the sugars. You need protein to help your immune system, skin, muscles, and hair stay healthy. Dietitians say you should eat approximately 46% to 56% protein every day. Foods high in protein include:

  • Beef
  • Poultry
  • Eggs
  • Beans
  • Cheese
  • Nuts and seeds

Vitamins  A and C

Vitamins A and C must be on food labels. The amount of these vitamins per serving is listed as a percentage of the vitamin’s daily requirement. This is based upon a diet with 2,000 calories.  Vitamin C is found in citrus foods, strawberries, blackberries, potatoes, broccoli, and Brussel sprouts. Carrots, squash, dark leafy greens, and all orange-colored vegetables contain Vitamin A.

Reading food labels

Where do you start when reading a food label? Although there’s no right or wrong way to read a food label, it’s helpful to start at the top and work your way down.

1 – Calories

First, starting at the top of the label, check out the serving size and the number of servings per package, and calories per serving. Compare how much you eat to the serving size listed. So, for instance, on the above label, you see that one cup is 260 calories. If you consume two cups,  then you’re eating 520 calories plus more fat and any other ingredients listed on the label.

2 –  % of Daily Values

Next, look at the percentage of your daily food values. The daily values on a food label the nutrients needed to eat an average of 2,000 calories a day.  Your recommended daily calories depend upon your BMI, age, height gender, weight, and activity level. If you’re curious about how many calories you should be eating every day, check out this calorie calculator to help you. The list of daily values will be a percentage of the total calories.

3 – Fats

Bad fats: You should aim to eat low fat. Saturated and trans fat are considered unhealthy. These include:

  • Butter
  • Margarine
  • Beef fat
  • Pork fat
  • Shortening

Try to avoid eating foods with these types of fat such as these:

  • Fatty meats and the skin of meats
  • High-fat milk
  • Cheese
  • Ice cream
  • Sour cream
  • Tropical oils like coconut, palm, and cocoa butter
  • Fried foods-French fries, fried meats, and other fried foods
  • Snack foods like potato chips, microwave popcorn, and crackers

Eating a high amount of saturated and trans fats will increase your cholesterol levels.

Healthy fats:

Eat foods with monounsaturated or polyunsaturated fats. These good fats are a liquid when they’re at room temperature. The foods with healthy fat include the following selections:

  • Walnuts
  • Vegetable oils like olive or canola
  • Peanut butter
  • Avocado
  • Salmon
  • Mackerel
  • Flaxseeds
  • Chia seeds

4 – Carbohydrates

Aim for high-fiber, whole wheat carbs like quinoa, brown rice, whole wheat bread, or whole wheat pasta.

5 – Low cholesterol

Choose foods low in cholesterol. This choice improves heart health, according to nutritionists and multiple studies.


6 – Vitamins and Minerals

Eat enough potassium, calcium, vitamin D, and iron. Aim to eat many foods with a high percentage of daily value from these, such as fruits and veggies.

pop memeWhat about the ingredients?

Food ingredients aren’t listed on food labels, but they are listed somewhere on the package. The Ingredients are listed highest to lowest according to weight. If an ingredient is at first on the list, there is more of it in the food. So, if you’re trying to avoid sugar and it’s at the top of the list of ingredients, then the food probably isn’t for you.

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