Healthcare Library

How to read a food label

Food labels tell you the nutrition facts about the foods you buy. You don't have to do any calculations -- it's all on the package.

Pay particular attention to these items on the label:

  • Serving size
  • Total carbohydrate
  • Dietary fiber
  • Calories
  • Total fat
  • Saturated fat and trans fat

Always check the serving size first: the information on the label refers to this specific serving size but your package may have more than one serving. If you eat more or less than the specified serving, you need to adjust the numbers. For example, the serving size for spaghetti is usually 2 ounces (1 cup). If you, like many people, eat 2 cups at a meal, you have to count this as two servings. This not only affects total calories, but also the grams of carbohydrate and fat that you just ate.

Check the total carbohydrate next. It is listed in bold letters to stand out. If you are counting carbohydrate grams, count this amount against your goal for your meal or snack.

Sugar, other carbohydrates, and dietary fiber are part of the total carbohydrate listed on the label. Since carbohydrates turn to sugar, the total grams of carbohydrate affect your blood glucose not only the grams of sugar in the particular food item.

Dietary fiber is listed just below total carbohydrates. Look for whole-grain foods that are high in fiber. In addition to checking for the word "whole" in the ingredients, also look for at least 3 - 4 grams of dietary fiber.

The calorie information tells you the number of calories in one serving. Adjust the number of calories if you eat smaller or larger servings.

Check the total fat in one serving. Pay particular attention to the amount of saturated fat in one serving. Choose foods that are low in saturated fat. For example, drink skim milk rather than whole milk. The former only has a trace of saturated fat while whole milk has 5 grams of saturated fat per serving. Similarly, 3 ounces of fish has less than 1 gram of saturated fat while 3 ounces of hamburger has more than 5 grams.

It is important to know that if a food item has less than 0.5 mg of saturated fat, the manufacturer is allowed to say that there is no saturated fat. This is especially important to know if you are eating more than one serving at a time because you may be getting a lot more saturated fat than you realize. For example, if you eat two servings of a food item that says "0.0 mg of saturated fat," you may be eating as much as 0.8 mg of saturated fat.

The Food and Drug Administration requires that trans fats in a food are listed on the food label. Trans fats are a type of fat created from a process called hydrogenation in which liquid oils are transformed into solid fats. These fats raise the LDL-cholesterol (bad) and lower the HDL-cholesterol (good). They are mostly found in processed and prepared foods like snack foods and desserts.

Pay attention to trans fats on any food label. These fats raise your LDL ("bad") cholesterol and lower your HDL ("good") cholesterol. Trans fats are measured in grams. Look for foods that are low in trans fats (1 gram or less).

The % Daily Value is listed on the label as a guide. These values are based on a 2000-calorie diet with percentages for calories, fat, saturated fat, carbohydrate, sodium and fiber. These goals may not be appropriate for you. Know your own goals for calories, carbohydrate and saturated fat. A registered dietitian can individualize your nutrition goals.


Review Date: 7/8/2012
Reviewed By: Nancy J. Rennert, MD, Chief of Endocrinology & Diabetes, Norwalk Hospital, Associate Clinical Professor of Medicine, Yale University School of Medicine, New Haven, CT. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Previoulsy reviewed by Ari S. Eckman, MD, Division of Endocrinology and Metabolism, Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, Baltimore, MD. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. (5/13/2010)
The information provided herein should not be used during any medical emergency or for the diagnosis or treatment of any medical condition. A licensed medical professional should be consulted for diagnosis and treatment of any and all medical conditions. Links to other sites are provided for information only -- they do not constitute endorsements of those other sites. © 1997- A.D.A.M., a business unit of Ebix, Inc. Any duplication or distribution of the information contained herein is strictly prohibited.
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