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Reading Nutrition Facts Labels Like a Pro: Nutritionist Tips & Tricks

a label of a product
a label of a product

When you’re making healthy choices, one of the most important things you can do is pick healthier foods. And this doesn’t mean picking up all the low-calorie, weight loss-friendly foods at the grocery store. After all, do you know how many grams of sugar may be hiding in a low-fat food? Or how much a single serving of your favorite meal is eating into the recommended daily value of carbs?

It may seem like a mystery, but there’s a way to make healthier choices without hassle—read the nutrition facts label! The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates food labeling to protect consumers from inaccurate or deceptive information. All food labels must comply with FDA regulations, which means they must provide accurate information about the nutritional content of the food. It includes both mandatory and voluntary labeling.

So what do you need to know about nutrition labels? When you're looking to buy a specific food product, the nutrition facts label can help you make informed choices about the foods you eat. Knowing what’s in every ingredient in your food can help you avoid unhealthy unsaturated fats, limit refined carbohydrates and make the right choices for your needs. But there’s a lot of information on food labels these days, and it can be hard to know what to make of it all.

You don’t have to know everything about every ingredient, but it can help to know what to look for. Don't worry—we're here to help! A few members of the Nutrition Team here at Nutrisense put some tips together on what to look for on nutrition labels to make the best choices for your health.

Nutrisense Nutritionist Tips to Reading Food Labels

a person reading a product's label in the shop

Total calories, dietary fiber, sucrose, dextrose, total fat... even if you’re used to counting calories, reading nutrition labels can be a chore.

No matter how well versed you are with everything from perfect daily values to serving sizes, understanding every detail on every label can be challenging. But you don’t always need to know it all to make healthy choices. Here’s a cheat sheet for how to choose your food the next time you’re at the grocery store:

Focus on Whole Foods

 a dietitian on the right top corner; a while lady with brown hair on a maroon square. The name 'Molly Downey, RDN, LDN' in green letters on the top left. A nutritional label on the bottom left, with green text on the bottom right that reads "While some people may be able to stick to a strict diet or know how to read nutrition labels, others feel overwhelmed and confused by all of the available information.”

Molly’s tips for choosing foods based on the nutrition facts label

  • According to Molly, it’s essential to look at the ingredients list to ensure that you don’t see mainly additives and substitutes. Look for foods that list primarily whole food sources on their ingredient lists. 
  • Sugar content is extremely important. When looking at nutrition labels, make sure there are no added sugars. Depending on the food product, Molly ideally prefers to see a range of 0.0 to 0.5 grams of sugar, but it depends on the situation so she doesn't have a specific range that fits every case. 

Fewer Ingredients = Healthier Choices

a dietitian on the right top corner; a while lady with brown hair wearing a white top with a winter backdrop. The name 'Liz McKinney, CNS, LDN' in green letters on the top left. A nutritional label on the bottom left, with green text on the bottom right that reads “By reading labels and understanding what to look for, you can make healthier choices when grocery shopping and eating out.”

Liz’s tips for choosing foods based on the nutrition facts label

  • Liz begins by looking for ingredients that she can easily read and pronounce. Her rule is that if there is a long list of ingredients in a food that you cannot pronounce, you may want to think twice about putting that into your body. While there may be a couple of ingredients that you don’t know in a food, if there are five to 10 you don't understand on the ingredients list, you may want to rethink your purchase. 
  • She also likes to steer her members away from ingredient lists that are very long. The fewer ingredients found on a nutrition facts label, the closer you are to eating the whole, nutrient-dense foods that make up what's in the product.
  • Liz likes to avoid foods with hydrogenated oils. Hydrogenated oil is a type of vegetable oil treated with hydrogen gas. This process makes the oil more shelf-stable and less likely to go rancid. However, it also increases the amount of trans fat in the oil. Trans fat is a type of saturated fat that can raise your cholesterol levels and increase your risk of heart disease. Check the ingredient list for hydrogenated as well as partially hydrogenated oils. 

Consider Serving Sizes

a dietitian on the right top corner; a while lady with long brown hair wearing a grey top with a brown backdrop. The name 'Amanda Donahue, MS, RD, CD' in green letters on the top left. An image of a lady's hand over a nutritional facts label on the bottom left, with green text on the bottom right that reads “Understanding what's in our food is important to maintain a healthy diet. By reading nutrition labels, we can learn how many calories and nutrients are in a serving of a particular food and make informed decisions about what to eat.”

Amanda’s tips for choosing foods based on the nutrition facts label

  • Amanda likes to begin examining nutrition labels by looking at the serving size. Some serving sizes account for the entire container of food you are holding. In contrast, others only account for a small portion. Nutrition facts label only account for amounts per serving which can get tricky.
  • Keep an eye out for any gluten-free products or other common allergies like tree nuts and shellfish that have warnings (usually placed near the nutrition facts label). It may indicate the product is made in a factory that uses these common ingredients (which creates a cross-contamination possibility). It can be detrimental to people who are sensitive to the allergens they're trying to avoid.

Be Wary of Certain Labels

a dietitian on the right top corner; a while lady with glasses and blonde hair tied in a ponytail. The name 'Stephanie Etherington, RD, CD, CDCE' in green letters on the top left. An image of a lady's hand holding a jar with a nutritional facts label on the bottom left, with green text on the bottom right that reads  “When it comes to making healthy choices, one of the most important skills you can have is knowing how to read a nutrition label. Nutrition labels can be confusing, but with a little bit of practice, you can learn how to interpret them and use the information to make healthier choices.”

Stephanie’s tips for choosing foods based on the nutrition facts label

  • Stephanie’s first warning to members is to avoid being fooled by food products labeled organic. Organic does not necessarily mean the food you are looking at is healthy or best suited to your dietary needs! Candy, ice cream, macaroni and cheese, and pizza can be labeled organic too. 
  • Gluten-free labels can also be deceptive. These foods can still have many added sugars, additives, and preservatives and may not be a great choice for your body or your blood sugar response. When the structural protein (gluten) of the starch is removed, manufacturers have to add other ingredients to make their products taste good, and that added ingredient is typically sugar. 
  • Fat-free labels are another commonly misleading marketing term that Stephanie usually warns members about. She sees this often on candy-like Red Vines Licorice. Yes, there is no fat content, but this product is 100 percent added sugar and chemicals and will spike your blood glucose levels if you aren’t cautious about your portion size!
  • When selecting canned or frozen foods, Stephanie always likes to check the sodium content. A quick way to assess if a product is high or low in sodium is to use the five-and-20 percent rule. If the sodium is five percent or less, this is a reasonably low sodium item. If it’s 20 percent% or higher, leave it on the shelf and find an alternative.

"You are what you eat." This simple phrase is often used to encourage people to make healthier choices regarding their diets. We all know that we should be reading nutrition facts labels, but many don't understand why.

Sure, it’s a good idea to watch your total calorie intake and make sure it suits your dietary needs, but there’s more to it. Nutrition labels provide valuable information about the food we're eating, including the number of calories, fat, carbohydrates, protein, essential vitamins like vitamin D and minerals like potassium and magnesium it contains. By taking the time to read nutrition labels, you can begin to make healthier choices about the foods you eat, which will lead to better overall health.

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Katie Kissane, MS, RD

Reviewed by: Katie Kissane, MS, RD

Katie is a dietitian at Nutrisense. With over 11 years of experience as a dietitian in many areas of nutrition, Katie has worked as a clinical dietitian within a hospital, as well as in the fields of diabetes, sports and performance nutrition, recovery from addiction, and general wellness. She’s also an athlete and has run 8 marathons, including the Boston Marathon.