Reading food labels: What you really need to look for

By Amanda Benson, RDN

Most people admit to reading the food label before purchasing or consuming a product, but do they really know what to look for? The next time you’re shopping, use this quick guide as a reference.

Start with the serving size

Compare the amount you might actually eat to the serving size listed on the panel since all of the nutrition facts listed pertain to the serving size. It’s also helpful to reference the servings per container so that if you end up eating the entire “small” package of trail mix, you know that it was actually four servings.

All calories are not created equal

Use the calories as a point of reference, but don’t make all of your decisions based on calories alone. For example, three Oreo cookies and two small apples each contain 160 calories. The Oreos however are made up of mostly sugar and saturated fat whereas apples contain beneficial fiber, vitamins and minerals.

The type of fat matters

Rather than just looking at the grams of total fat, pay attention to whether or not the majority of the fat is from saturated and/or trans fats. If so, it’s probably not the best option and you should at least limit your portions of that food.

Go easy on sodium

Most processed foods will contain at least some sodium, and high levels of sodium can add up to high blood pressure – so take it easy. To limit your sodium intake you’re best off choosing fresh, whole foods more often.

More fiber, less sugar

Look for complex forms of carbohydrates like whole grains that contain at least three grams of fiber per serving and limit your intake of sugar (especially added sugar). As a reference point, four grams of sugar equals one teaspoon so you can visualize how quickly that adds up!

Choose high quality proteins

Protein has many health benefits and helps you feel fuller for longer. Choose a variety of protein sources like lean meat, poultry, fish, eggs, high-quality dairy, beans, nuts and seeds.

Last but not least, check the ingredient list

Ingredients are listed in descending order by weight. In general, look for products with shorter ingredients lists and words you can pronounce. The closer to nature the better!

Amanda Benson, Registered Dietitian, Vitality Wellness Strategy Manager, Certified Corporate Wellness Specialist, new mom of an amazing 10-month old baby girl, foodie, runner, music lover and overall health and wellness enthusiast.

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